Food safety legislation in limbo

by Jay Sjerven
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WASHINGTON — Owners of Wright County Egg and Hillandale Farms, the two Iowa egg farms connected to the recent outbreak of Salmonella enteritidis, were lambasted during a House subcommittee hearing on Sept. 22. But the outbreak that sickened more than 1,600 persons and resulted in the recall of more than a half-billion eggs failed to move the Senate to pass its food safety bill before Congress was scheduled to recess for the midterm elections.

Austin DeCoster, owner of Wright County Egg, and his son, Peter, who manages the Wright County Egg business, and Orland Bethel, president, Hillandale Farms of Iowa, were roundly criticized by members of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce’s Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations for the unsanitary conditions found on their farms by Food and Drug Administration investigators seeking to uncover the cause of the Salmonella outbreak.

There were no new revelations, but Mr. Bethel provided no opening statement and invoked the Fifth Amendment in refusing to answer questions. Instead, Duane Mangskau, a production representative for Hillandale Farms, fielded the congressmen’s questions and criticisms on behalf of his boss.

Several Democrats on the panel, including the subcommittee’s chairman Representative Bart Stupak of Michigan, in opening statements excoriated Senator Tom Coburn, charging the Oklahoma Republican was responsible for holding up passage of the F.D.A. Food Safety Modernization Act (S. 510) in the Senate. (The House food safety act was passed more than a year ago.) Representative Michael Burgess of Texas, ranking Republican member of the committee, took umbrage and sought to read into the hearing’s record Senator Coburn’s denial he was to blame for the holdup of the Senate food safety bill leading to a bitter exchange between Mr. Burgess and Mr. Stupak.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the Capitol, senators were preparing to leave Washington without acting on S. 510.

Late the previous week, with time running out before the October recess, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada sought to limit debate on the food safety bill and move the measure forward to a vote. Mr. Coburn objected to limited debate with the result that Mr. Reid, who asserted he could not both schedule a full debate on S. 510 and complete other essential business before the Senate adjourned for its October recess, said consideration of the food safety bill may have to be delayed until the Senate reconvenes after the midterm election for a lame duck session.

“In light of recent events like the egg recall in Iowa, it is unconscionable that Senator Coburn and his Republican colleagues are putting politics ahead of a commonsense, bipartisan bill to ensure that the food products our families consume everyday are safe,” Mr. Reid said.

Mr. Coburn responded, “If Majority Leader Reid believes this legislation is a matter of life and death, he should bring it to the floor immediately for a full and open debate. As majority leader, he sets the schedule. I do not. His claim that I am blocking the Senate from considering the bill is false, and he knows it is false.

“The majority leader also knows one of my concerns with the bill is that it is not paid for. Unfortunately, he has refused to even discuss ways to pay for the bill by reducing spending on lower priority items.”

An aide to Mr. Coburn indicated the senator also was concerned a strengthened F.D.A. might be “overzealous” in employing its new authorities such as mandatory recall.

A coalition of business and consumer groups that rallied in favor of passage of the food safety bill on Sept. 20 expressed disappointment with the delay.

“The F.D.A. Food Safety Modernization Act is too important to delay its passage any further,” said Scott Faber, vice-president for federal affairs at the Grocery Manufacturers Association. “The food and beverage industry is committed to partnering with Congress, the Obama administration and the F.D.A. to strengthen and modernize our nation’s food safety system. The F.D.A. Food Safety Modernization Act will provide the F.D.A. with the resources and authorities this agency needs to help strengthen our nation’s food safety system by making prevention the focus of our food safety strategies. We urge the Senate to vote on this important, bipartisan bill as quickly as possible.”

Leslie G. Sarasin, president and chief executive officer of the Food Marketing Institute, said, “We are extremely disappointed that the U.S. Senate will not act immediately to take up the F.D.A. Food Safety Modernization Act before the midterm elections. We all have the responsibility to work together to improve the safety of our food supply. We believe the focus should be on trying to prevent problems before they occur by providing the F.D.A. the necessary resources and authority to help the agency protect our food supply.”

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