Hearing begins discussion on draft food safety legislation

by Jay Sjerven
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WASHINGTON — A June 3 hearing of the health subcommittee of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce launched public discussion of draft food safety legislation released the previous week by Representatives Henry A. Waxman of California, chairman of the energy and commerce committee, John D. Dingell of Michigan, the committee’s chairman emeritus, as well as Bart Stupak of Michigan, Frank Pallone of New Jersey, Diana DeGette of Colorado and Betty Sutton of Ohio.

The hearing marked the first testimony before a congressional panel by Dr. Margaret Hamburg in her capacity as commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration.

The draft legislation would require all facilities within the United States or that import food into the United States to register with the F.D.A. Each facility would pay an annual registration fee of $1,000. The fees were presented as a means to increase funding for the F.D.A.’s food inspection activities beyond what would be provided in annual appropriations. The fees alone might generate around $375 million for F.D.A. food safety inspections and related activities.

In opening statements, Republicans on the health subcommittee questioned the need for registration fees, asserting they might place an undue burden on industry, especially small companies, during difficult economic times. Questions also were raised regarding whether money raised through such fees was in fact necessary or might be directed to purposes other than specifically to food facility inspections.

The draft bill would require U.S. food manufacturers or importers to implement safety plans to protect against food hazards, with the F.D.A. specifying minimum plan requirements and auditing safety plan performance. Food safety plans and the emphasis on prevention enjoyed support among both Democratic and Republican members of the panel.

The draft legislation would set minimum inspection frequencies. High-risk facilities would be inspected at least once every 6 to 18 months. Low-risk facilities would be inspected at least once every 18 months to three years, and food warehouses would be inspected at least once every three to four years.

Dr. Hamburg urged the panel to consider giving the F.D.A. more flexibility in determining inspection frequency in view of the funding available and development of more informed assessment of risks. Dr. Hamburg voiced support for a process for certifying third-party inspections at least in the realm of food imports.

The bill would require the F.D.A. to issue regulations requiring food producers, manufacturers, processors and transporters to maintain "the full pedigree" of the origin and previous distribution history of a food and establish "an interoperable" record to ensure fast and efficient trace back. It was pointed out recordkeeping and sharing was limited by the use of different methods and technologies with many companies still relying on paper records than cannot be quickly shared or communicated.

The F.D.A. under the draft bill would be required to establish a program to recognize laboratory accreditation bodies and to accept test results only from duly accredited laboratories. The bill would give the F.D.A. the ability to require laboratories to send test results to F.D.A. inspectors.

Dr. Hamburg voiced her support for the bill’s provisions regarding recordkeeping and F.D.A. inspector access to company and laboratory records.

The F.D.A. under the draft bill would require food produced abroad be certified as meeting all U.S. food safety requirements by audited third-party certifying entities. The draft legislation also would permit the F.D.A. to develop voluntary security guidelines for imported foods. Importers meeting the guidelines would receive expedited processing.

The bill would provide the F.D.A. with mandatory recall authority and increase penalties for noncompliance.

Pamela Bailey, president and chief executive officer, Grocery Manufacturers Association, said in testimony, "We strongly support in concept many of the proposals in the draft, including those that require food companies to have a food safety plan; proposals for F.D.A. to set safety standards for fruit and vegetable; proposals to improve the safety of imported food and food ingredients; a risk-based approach to inspection that recognizes the important role played by states and competent foreign authorities; and proposals to give F.D.A. strong enforcement powers to deal with companies that have violated food safety law, including mandatory recall authority when needed."

Ms. Bailey added the G.M.A. offered important modifications to the draft to committee staff and would to work with them to address those provisions.

This article can also be found in the digital edition of Food Business News, June 9, 2009, starting on Page 24. Click here to search that archive.

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