Next Congress likely to make food safety a priority

By PHILIP BRASHER • Gannett News Service

 

Source of Article:  http://www.statesmanjournal.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20080813/OPINION/80808047/1049

 

August 13, 2008

WASHINGTON — Toys were first. Food may be next on the agenda for Congress in a new wave of government regulation.

Congress has overwhelmingly agreed to give the Consumer Product Safety Commission more money and authority to regulate children’s products and require third-party testing of toys.

Now, lawmakers are taking aim at the Food and Drug Administration. The FDA regulates 80 percent of the food Americans eat but has only a fraction of the funding and the staff of the Agriculture Department, which regulates the other 20 percent, primarily meat.

Little is likely to get done this year — it’s too close to the election — but an FDA overhaul is likely to be high on the congressional agenda next year. The food industry, which once resisted increased regulation, has been hammered with one costly outbreak after another. The latest, involving a strain of salmonella bacteria, devastated the U.S. tomato industry before it was linked instead to Mexican-grown jalapeno peppers. The FDA itself is asking for more authority.

“You will see the food industry being supportive of government action,” said Bryan Silbermann, president of the Produce Marketing Association. “We’ve seen what’s happened over the last eight years of government inaction.”

As was the case with toy reform, key Republicans also are getting behind the idea of increasing government food regulation.

Three of the top four Republicans on the Senate committee that oversees the FDA — Judd Gregg of New Hampshire, Lamar Alexander of Tennessee and Richard Burr of North Carolina — are cosponsoring a bill that aims to do for that agency what Congress did this year for the Consumer Product Safety Commission.

The bill, introduced by Illinois Democrat Richard Durbin, authorizes the FDA to set commodity-specific safety standards for produce and require importers to verify that the foods they’re bringing in were produced according to U.S. rules.

The FDA also would be authorized to certify third-party inspections of both domestic and foreign food facilities and would be empowered for the first time to require recalls of tainted products. Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, also is co-sponsoring the bill.

“There are parts of this bill that you couldn’t (previously) bring Republicans around to,” Durbin said, citing the recall authority as an example.

Republican Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa, who has criticized the FDA’s regulation of prescription drugs, also thinks Congress is likely to do something about its oversight of food.

“It’s recognized in both political parties and recognized in food as well as pharmaceuticals that FDA needs an overhaul,” Grassley said. “They need more money. They need more inspectors.”

A separate FDA-overhaul bill is under development in the House. A discussion draft was released earlier this year.

The produce industry’s frustration with the current system spilled out at a recent hearing by the House Agriculture Committee on the salmonella outbreak.

Anthony DiMare, who is vice president of a family-run company that grows, packs and ships tomatoes, told the committee that sales dropped 60 percent after tomatoes were initially fingered as the source of the outbreak. Operations were still off by 20 percent at the end of July. The outbreak was eventually traced to jalapenos, thanks to the work of state investigators in Minnesota.

“We don’t know how long it will take for consumer confidence in fresh tomatoes to rebound,” DiMare told the panel.

It’s not clear how much Congress is likely to do to change the way outbreaks are investigated. That job is now divided among federal agencies as well as state and local authorities, who have widely varying levels of funding and staff expertise.

It’s a system akin to leaving weather forecasting to state and local authorities, says Michael Osterholm, a nationally recognized expert on food-borne diseases at the University of Minnesota.

But Durbin isn’t ready to talk about something as sweeping as unifying the food-safety system. That would mean stepping on a lot of toes, including those of the various committee chairmen who now share jurisdiction over the FDA, the USDA and other agencies that have some oversight over food. Better to start with bolstering the FDA, he says.

“We really have to allow this agency to mature into an effective 21st century agency to protect American families,” he said.

If the recent votes on the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act are any indication, Durbin should have plenty of allies. The Senate passed the bill 89-3. The House vote was 424-1.

 

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