Senate gives food safety bill new life

Dec 20, 2010 (CIDRAP News) – A landmark food safety bill that had been regarded as nearly dead 3 days ago was abruptly passed by the Senate late yesterday, following weeks of efforts to overcome a technical problem that invalidated an earlier version of it.

The Senate approved the measure by unanimous consent after Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R- Ky., reached a deal that ruled out a Republican filibuster, the Washington Post reported.

The bill now goes back to the House, which is expected to approve it and send it on to President Obama. Max Gleischman, a spokesman for Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., told CIDRAP News he expects the House will pass the bill tomorrow.

If the bill doesn't pass before the 111th Congress adjourns, probably in the next few days, supporters will have to start all over again in the new Congress. With Republicans taking control of the House and Democrats commanding a smaller majority in the Senate, the legislation could have a difficult time in the new session.

The bill, which is broadly supported by consumer and industry groups, increases the Food and Drug Administration's (FDA's) authority to prevent food contamination and requires food producers to analyze contamination risks and develop prevention plans. It also steps up regulation of imported foods, calling on importers to verify that the foods they import are safe.

The Senate's action was applauded by the Consumer Federation of America (CFA), among other groups. In a statement released last night, Chris Waldrop, director of the CFA's Food Policy Institute, said, "Tonight's Senate vote is an early gift to consumers across the country."

An apparent key to the bill's revival in the Senate was an unexplained decision by Sen Tom Coburn, R-Okla., to drop his vow to filibuster the measure, according to the Post. John Hart, a spokesman for Coburn, told the Post last night that he didn't know why Coburn had relented. Coburn had fought the bill for months, arguing that it would impose new costs and burdens without doing much to make food safer.

The legislation has followed a long and twisting path. The House first passed a version of it in July 2009 on a strong bipartisan vote, but progress in the Senate was much slower. The upper chamber finally passed its bill on Nov 30 by a 73-25 margin, only to learn the next day that the measure violated a constitutional rule that all revenue measures must originate in the House. The bill authorized the FDA to charge fees in connection with food recalls and registration fees for food importers.

This snag triggered negotiations between House and Senate leaders, with the result that House leaders took the Senate bill, made minor changes to resolve the constitutional problem, and attached it to a continuing resolution to fund government operations through September 2011. The resolution, with the food safety legislation in tow, passed the House Dec 8 on a 212-206 vote.

Senate Democrats then tried to attach the revised legislation to their version of the continuing resolution to keep the government funded. But the spending bill drew heavy criticism because it included numerous "earmarks" for local projects, and Republicans united in opposition to it. As a result, Senate leaders gave up on the measure on Dec 16, leaving the fate of the food safety bill highly uncertain.

The Post said the deal that ended the filibuster threat followed "a weekend of negotiations, tense strategy sessions, and several premature predictions about the bill's demise."

Gleischman said the bill the Senate passed yesterday is identical to the one the House included in its continuing resolution, with the changes to fix the constitutional problem.

A coalition of groups supporting the bill sent a letter to Reid and McConnell yesterday urging them to pass it, according to the Capitol Hill newspaper The Hill. The groups included the CFA, the American Public Health Association, Consumers Union, and the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI).

The bill requires the FDA to inspect food facilities more often, empowers it to require food recalls instead of requesting them, 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.

However, the legislation is less stringent than the original House bill on certain points. The House bill called for the FDA to charge all domestic food facilities an annual $500 registration fee, which was seen as an important source of funds to help the agency fulfill its increased responsibilities, but the Senate version doesn't include that. The Post report said the bill is expected to cost $1.4 billion a year for the next 4 years, including the funds to pay 2,000 new FDA inspectors.

Also, the Senate measure exempts small food processors and producers from some major requirements. Small processors are excused from conducting full hazard analyses, and small farms are exempt from produce standards that will apply to larger operations, according to earlier reports. In addition, inspections of food facilities and farms are required less often under the Senate version.

Nonetheless, the CFA in its statement said the legislation "requires a fundamental shift in the Food and Drug Administration's food safety program, emphasizing prevention instead of waiting until people become sick or die."

"In an era of rank partisanship, CFA is grateful to senators from both parties who joined to pass this legislation," the group said. It cited the work of Sens. Durbin; Tom Harkin, D-Iowa; Christopher Dodd, D-Conn.; Michael Enzi, R-Wyo., Judd Gregg, R-N.H., and the staff of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee for their "tireless efforts" to pass the bill.

See also:

Dec 19 CFA statement

Dec 19 CSPI statement

Dec 20 Consumers Union statement

Dec 17 CIDRAP News story "Food safety bill in serious trouble"

Nov 30 CIDRAP News story on passage of original Senate bill

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