Congress may deliver food safety, nutrition legislation

by Jay Sjerven
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Food safety reform and child nutrition advocates seemed poised to realize during the lame duck session of Congress victories that eluded them in the several months before the midterm elections. Food safety reform legislation cleared a major hurdle on Nov. 17, when the Senate by a lopsided 74-to-25 vote decided to consider and bring to a vote the F.D.A. Food Safety Modernization Act (S. 510). Meanwhile, the House of Representatives was expected after Thanksgiving to consider legislation reauthorizing the nation’s child nutrition programs and improving the healthfulness of food and beverages provided in schools.

The House already passed its version of food safety reform several months ago, and the Senate in August passed its child nutrition bill, the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010. So advocates were hopeful both bills may be approved, reconciled and passed on to President Obama for his signature before the lame-duck Congress adjourns in December.
The Senate failed to bring the Food Safety Modernization Act to a vote before the October recess because of the objection of Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, who said he opposed considering the measure, asserting it was not fully paid for. With time running out before the recess, further action was deferred until after the elections.

The bill would provide new authorities and resources to the Food and Drug Administration to more effectively regulate and ensure the safe manufacture and distribution of food in the United States. Both the Senate and House food safety reform bills have had broad bipartisan support and have been promoted by a formidable coalition of nutrition, consumer and food industry organizations.

At press time, amendments to the bill were being considered. Senator Jon Tester of Montana was successful in having his amendment exempting from the act’s provisions small producers with sales of less than $500,000 and who sell their food products within 275 miles of their farms or facilities incorporated into the bill.

Mr. Coburn introduced two amendments, the first being a substitute for the current bill and the second to secure a moratorium on congressional earmarks.

The Senate was expected to resume consideration of the food safety bill after the Thanksgiving break.

Senator Dianne Feinstein of California did not offer an amendment to ban the use of bisphenol-A, a chemical found in plastic products that may contain food or beverages, from use in the manufacture of baby bottles and require the F.D.A. to issue a revised safety assessment on B.P.A. by Dec. 1, 2012. Ms. Feinstein blamed the chemical industry for blocking the effort.

On the other side of the Capitol, a coalition of more than 1,000 nutrition, consumer and food industry organizations, the latter including the American Bakers Association, the Grocery Manufacturers Association, the Food Marketing Institute among many others, urged the House of Representatives to reauthorize child nutrition programs.

On Nov. 11, the coalition sent a letter to Representative George Miller of California, chairman of the House Committee on Education and Labor, and Representative John Kline of Minnesota, the ranking minority member on the committee, urging the House to pass the Senate’s Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act as its own and send the legislation to President Obama for his signature.

The letter said it was “imperative that the reauthorization be completed by this Congress.” To that end, the coalition urged the House to pass the Senate bill, which would reauthorize nutrition programs, including school lunches, school breakfasts, after-school meals and summer feeding programs through 2015. It also would raise nutrition standards for school meals and authorize the U.S. Department of Agriculture to set nutrition rules for food sold in school vending machines and al la carte lines.
While pressing the House to pass the Senate bill, the coalition acknowledged it was troubled that the bill was paid for by ending by November 2013 an emergency boost in monthly Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (food stamp) benefits authorized by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. Congress already trimmed the emergency SNAP benefits in August to provide assistance to states for Medicaid and to school districts to avoid layoffs.

“Yet, we also realize that with one in four children at risk of hunger and one in three overweight or obese, our children cannot afford to wait for the improvements to child nutrition that are made in the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act,” the coalition said. It expressed hope the administration and Congress would find vehicles other than SNAP benefits to fund the bill.

“As we keep working toward these goals, Congress and the administration must continue to improve access to child nutrition programs, such as addressing gaps during weekends, summers and breakfast, and strengthen and safeguard the SNAP program,” the coalition said.
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