Outlook unclear as Senate debates food safety bill

Nov 18, 2010 (CIDRAP News) – A debate on comprehensive food safety legislation continued in the US Senate today, but the bill's chances of passage remained murky as behind-the-scenes negotiations over amendments to the bill were sputtering, according to a Senate staff member.

The bill would allow the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to order food recalls, require it to inspect food facilities more often, and give it better access to food facility records. It also would require food establishments to analyze their contamination risks and take preventive steps, and it would increase regulation of imported food.

Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., yesterday filed a proposed amendment to the bill that would ban all "earmark" spending measures through 2013, along with a separate amendment that would completely rewrite the bill, according to a CQ Today report. Coburn had blocked debate on the bill before the election recess, but the Senate voted yesterday to invoke cloture, opening the way for floor debate.

Today a Senate staff member who asked for anonymity told CIDRAP News that Coburn's earmark amendment had led to a stalemate over how much time to allow for debate on the bill.

"We're at an impasse over Coburn's earmark provision—we're unable to reach a time agreement on the bill as a result of Coburn's earmark threat and without a time agreement this whole process has reached a standstill," he commented by e-mail. "It's unclear if or when this will be dealt with, and if or when the bill will proceed toward passage."

In Senate debate late this afternoon, Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, urged Coburn to drop his earmarks amendment, saying that issue should be dealt with separately, preferably in the new Congress next year.

"This is not the bill on which to try to offer something dealing with earmarks. I hope my friend from Oklahoma will relent on this," Harkin said, adding that there will be plenty of time to discuss earmarks in the new Congress.

If the Senate does pass the bill, it will have to be reconciled with a similar but not identical bill that was passed by the House in July 2009 before it can be finally enacted. The two bills differ over fees that the FDA would collect from food facilities and on various other details.

Harkin said today that House leaders have agreed to go along with the Senate version, provided it gets bipartisan support. "We have an agreement from the House that if we pass it with bipartisan support, the House will take and pass it and send it right to the president," he said.

Earlier in the afternoon, Coburn argued that the Senate bill would not pay significant benefits in food safety in return for its cost, which he put at $1.5 billion over 5 years.

He asserted that the US incidence of foodborne illness has improved in recent years, from 51.2 cases per 100,000 people in 1996 to 34.8 cases per 100,000 in 2009, which he said is "three times better" than any other country. "Why are we doing this now, when in fact we're on a trend line to markedly decrease it?" he asked.

Coburn criticized the bill's provision empowering the FDA to order food recalls, arguing that the FDA has never needed to order a recall because food companies always issue recalls voluntarily when there's a risk of contamination.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., arguing in the bill's support, said the measure is supported by the FDA, food industry groups, and consumers. She contended that "bad actors" hurt the "good actors" in the food industry, which explains why grocery retailers support it.

Klobuchar also asserted that the FDA needs the authority to order food recalls. In the egg-related Salmonella outbreak recently, federal officials said they needed more authority to trigger recalls, she said.

"My hope is this delay will end, we'll get this done, and when people sit down for Thanksgiving dinner, they'll know we're not stuck with the same system we had in 1938," Klobuchar said.

In the evening, as the Senate juggled other business, it took a vote to move the bill after the required 30-hour post-cloture delay had expired. The motion, which was just a procedural measure, passed 57 to 27.

The Senate is expected to resume debate on the bill tomorrow.

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