House Vote Delays New Power for FDA
Legislation Considered Under Expedited Process Drew Complaints
(Wall Street Journal, DC)
By JANE ZHANG
The House on Wednesday narrowly rejected legislation aimed at giving the Food and Drug Administration more authority and funding to police food safety.
But the measure, which has bipartisan backing and the support of consumer and food-industry groups, could face another House vote—and likely passage—as early as Thursday. It was introduced following a series of high-profile outbreaks of food-borne illnesses in the last few years.
Democratic leaders brought up the bill under a special procedure that allowed limited debate and no amendments, and required passage by a two-thirds supermajority. The 280-150 vote in favor of the bill -- with 23 Democrats opposed and Republicans divided -- fell a few votes short of two-thirds. Next time, it is likely the bill will need a simple majority.
Minority Leader John Boehner (R., Ohio) opposed rushing through the legislation, saying it had been revised three times between Tuesday night and Wednesday morning. "Did anybody read the bill?" he asked.
The legislation would allow the FDA to order recalls of tainted foods, set production standards to prevent contamination and tell companies how to keep records so outbreaks of food-borne illnesses can be traced more easily. The measure would also require many food companies to register with the FDA, pay an annual $500 fee, and give the FDA access to their records during routine inspections.
"With 280 votes, the bill clearly has broad bipartisan support, and I am a little disheartened that Americans will have to wait a little longer now to feel safe about their food supply again," said the bill's main sponsor, Rep. John D. Dingell (D, Mich.).
The Senate isn't expected to act on a similar bill until the fall, after it finishes work on health-care legislation.
The legislation seeks to plug holes in the nation's piecemeal, food-safety system. The FDA has
limited power and resources to inspect and regulate food production in the U.S. and abroad, and has come under fire over its handling of recent outbreaks involving products from spinach to peanuts to hot peppers. The agency regulates most food, except for meat, poultry and eggs, which fall under the purview of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Consumer groups -- along with the Grocery Manufacturers Association, which represents large food makers and processors, and the United Fresh Produce Association, which represents the fresh-produce industry -- have voiced support for the bill. Food companies say it would help boost consumer confidence in the country's food supply.
The Congressional Budget Office has estimated that on top of the new fees it would collect, the FDA would need $2.2 billion over five years to carry out its new responsibilities. Much of that would go towards paying for the increased number of food-facility inspections the agency would be required to conduct under the legislation. It remained unclear how the agency would make up that shortfall.
Eleventh-hour changes to the bill would exempt farms and retailers that sell food directly to consumers from paying the annual $500 fee. They would also put some curbs on the FDA's authority to trace contaminated products, such as grains, and require that the FDA set production standards only for foods most likely to be contaminated, such as fresh vegetables.
The changes didn't satisfy some Republicans. Rep. Frank Lucas of Oklahoma, the Agriculture Committee's senior Republican, sent a letter to lawmakers on Tuesday night urging them to vote against the bill. "Although these are needed changes, they do not go far enough to make the bill acceptable," he said. "We can still expect to have an agency of the federal government telling our farmers how to do their jobs." 7-30-09
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