Source of Article:http://www.fresnobee.com/local/story/1242671.html
Thursday, Mar. 05, 2009
By Michael Doyle / Bee Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON - California farmers and
their congressional allies are reviving their efforts to dramatically revise
food safety oversight.
Picking up from last year's effort, Rep.
Jim Costa, D-Fresno, on Thursday joined a Florida Republican in unveiling an
industry-backed bill that would impose stricter safety requirements on
imported foods. The bill would also extend nationwide some strict rules
already applied in California and Florida.
"The last time our food safety laws were
modernized, President Eisenhower was in office," Costa said at a
sparsely attended Capitol Hill news conference Thursday. "A lot has
The Western Growers
Association and other industry groups strongly support the bill introduced by
Costa and Rep. Adam Putnam, R-Fla. Growers lose
money when consumers stop buying food because of safety fears.
The legislation would give the Food and
Drug Administration its first-ever power to order
recalls of potentially contaminated foods. Currently, these food recalls are
voluntary. The bill would also give the FDA new authority to set production,
harvesting and packaging standards for fruits and vegetables.
The bill does not cover meat or beef
products, which are handled by the Agriculture Department.
The bill does not directly provide any
additional staff or funding for the FDA, though investigators have called the
agency undermanned for the task of overseeing nearly half-a-trillion dollars'
worth of domestic and imported food annually.
The FDA's "food safety workload has
increased in the past decade, while its food safety staff and funding have
not kept pace," the Government Accountability Office noted last year.
The bill potentially reaches across
borders, with a variety of measures designed to ensure foreign foods meet U.S.
production standards. Fifteen percent of all food consumed in the United States
is produced overseas, according to the Agriculture Department.
"As the world grows smaller, and as
we see more and more imports come into the United States … we need to make
sure that we are not simultaneously exposing the American consumer to
additional risk," Putnam said. Even so, the so-called Safe Food
Enforcement, Assessment, Standards and Targeting Act is not the only food
safety reform bill planted on Capitol Hill this year, and it will have to
fight for life. In some cases, introduced bills primarily stake out bargaining
positions designed to shape rather than become the final product.
Last month, for instance, liberal
Democrats reintroduced a familiar bill establishing a new Food Safety
Administration to consolidate work now handled by multiple agencies. Similar
Food Safety Administration proposals have been regularly introduced without
success since June 1999.
The various food safety proposals often
get at least a short-term boost from the latest contaminated food crisis.
Most recently, nine people have died and more than 650 people have been
sickened from eating Salmonella-tainted peanut products.
Last year, Costa and Putnam introduced
their food safety bill in the wake of an incident in which 200-plus people
grew sick and three died from eating California
spinach contaminated by E. coli bacteria. The legislation then stalled after
it was introduced last April.
"Food safety continues to be an
issue, every time we have a scare, whether it's
peanut butter or Mexican peppers," Costa said.
Potentially, this year's efforts could
find a more congenial political environment. The Obama administration will
play some kind of role, and consumer advocates are cheering the selection of
Kathleen Merrigan as deputy agriculture secretary.
On Capitol Hill, new committee chairmen such as Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, will
serve as legislative gatekeepers.
Waxman displaced a previous chairman,
Michigan Democrat John Dingell, who has written a comprehensive Food and Drug
Administration reform package that also covers the FDA's drug jurisdiction.
Potentially, the bill introduced by Costa and Putnam could be folded into or
otherwise influence this larger bill.