House sends food safety bill to president

Dec 21, 2010 (CIDRAP News) – A major food safety bill designed to boost contamination-prevention efforts all along the food chain cleared the last of many legislative hurdles today with a 215-144 vote in the House, sending it to President Obama for his promised signature.

The House approved the measure after a final debate in which supporters acknowledged that it is not as strong as the bill they originally approved in July 2009. But they called it a good measure with widespread support and said it represents an opportunity that may not come again anytime soon, as the 111th Congress is about to adjourn.

The final bill is identical to what the Senate passed on a 73-25 vote on Nov 30, except for minor technical changes to correct a constitutional problem. The earlier Senate bill authorized the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to collect fees related to food recalls and certain other activities, but the Constitution stipulates that revenue measures must originate in the House of Representatives.

A series of legislative maneuvers led to the Senate's passage of a corrected version of its bill 2 days ago, which set the stage for the House's final action today. Although the legislation drew considerable Republican support in the Senate, today's vote largely followed party lines. The bill was supported by 205 Democrats and 10 Republicans and opposed by 8 Democrats and 136 Republicans.

"Congress has demonstrated that food safety is a bipartisan issue," said Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., in opening this afternoon's debate. Referring to the foodborne disease outbreaks of recent years, he said, "The FDA needs a modern set of authorities to deal with our increasingly globalized food supply. . . . . The bill makes significant improvements throughout the food chain, from farm to dinner table."

"Many of us in the House would agree that our bill was stronger, and it's regrettable there's no time for a conference to make improvements in the Senate bill," Waxman said. "But there's no question that this is a good bill. . . . It will fundamentally shift our food safety system to one that is preventive rather than reactive."

The bill requires the FDA to inspect food facilities more often, empowers it to require food recalls, expands its access to food facility records, and requires food producers and processors to identify possible hazards and develop prevention plans. The legislation also aims to make imported food safer by calling for more inspections of foreign food production facilities and requiring importers to verify the safety of foreign suppliers and imported food.

Also included are provisions to improve foodborne disease surveillance and the tracing of contaminated foods to their sources and to train facility personnel to comply with the new requirements. The legislation does not cover meat and poultry production, which are regulated by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) rather than the FDA.

One provision excluded from the bill is a $500 annual registration fee for domestic food facilities, a feature in the original House bill that was expected to help cover the cost of the FDA's increased responsibilities. Also, the final bill includes an amendment by Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., that exempts small produce farms and food businesses from some key requirements, including the requirement for a full hazard analysis and prevention plan.

In urging passage today, supporters of the final legislation stressed that it has wide support from consumer and health groups and the food industry.

"Almost every business group in food manufacturing and processing supports it," said Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., a leading champion of the measure. He said it is backed by the Grocery Manufacturers Association, the National Association of Manufacturers, the Consumer Federation of America, the American Public Health Association, the Food Marketing Institute, and several other groups.

Opponents argued today that the bill is the result of a flawed legislative process and that it will burden food producers without increasing food safety by much. They also criticized the Tester amendment.

Rep Joseph Pitts, R-Pa., said, "I intend to vote against this bill because it's such a gross departure from what I consider reasonable legislating. We were forced to vote on the Senate bill with no substantive changes." He said House leaders should have been able to work out a compromise with the Senate, but "we were told that we couldn't do that because there wasn't enough time."

Pitts also objected to the Tester amendment. Arguing that pathogens "don't care if you have a large facility or a small one," he said, "The Tester amendment will set up a system full of weak links."

Rep. Frank Lucas, R-Okla., voiced similar concerns. "It'll lead to a huge regulatory burden on farmers and ranchers, it'll increase costs for consumers, and it'll contribute little to food safety," he said. "With the Tester amendment, some argue that it's a step backward."

Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., a strong supporter of the bill, called the bill "a good and necessary first step in improving our food safety system and better protecting our families form foodborne illness." She vowed to begin working now for food safety improvements at the USDA.

Today's House action drew immediate praise from the Consumer Federation of America, among other groups.

“The FDA Food Safety Modernization Act is a limited but important step toward the goal of reducing and preventing foodborne illness," said Carol Tucker-Foreman, the group's distinguished fellow in food policy, in a statement. "We will do everything we can to assure that it is fully implemented by the Food and Drug Administration and we will return to Congress to seek improvements if those prove necessary. We are grateful to the Congress for continuing to work on it right up to the end of the session.”

See also:

Dec 21 Consumer Federation of America statement

Dec 20 CIDRAP News story "Senate gives food safety bill new life"

Nov 30 CIDRAP News story "Senate passes food safety bill by wide margin"

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