Christmas-treeing food safety

by Bernard Shire
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WASHINGTON — The holidays are finally here and a top priority for many is getting a beautiful Christmas tree. Our government, particularly Congress, also has political Christmas trees on its mind.

A favorite political tactic of Congressional members is taking legislation – the tree "trunk" – and adding "branches" – amendments they’d like passed – to it. This is called "Christmas treeing." This Christmas season, Congress has decided food safety should be the policy issue for its Christmas-treeing efforts. The "trunk" of the tree is S. 510, the Food and Drug Administration Food Safety Modernization Act of 2009, the major effort Congress is making to reform food safety this session. Efforts are being made to connect separate legislation to S. 510, one of them being S. 619, the Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act. This is part of a long-time effort by critics of animal agriculture to force cuts in antibiotic use in livestock and poultry used for food. Long-time efforts to stop animal antibiotic use continue, despite assertions by veterinarians, food scientists and others there is no danger.

In a letter to Senator Tom Harkin, D.-Iowa, chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee, and Sen. Michael Enzi, R.-Wyoming, ranking member of the committee, a coalition of agricultural trade associations and groups representing veterinarians who work with food animals, said antibiotics, "when judiciously and professionally used, are vital tools for veterinarians, livestock and poultry producers to maintain animal health and welfare, and safeguard our food supply."

Coalition members voiced concerns the language tacked onto the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act would remove several types of antibiotics from the market for animals, as well as override current regulatory processes by banning entire classes of commonly used animal health products, even those with a strong track record of fighting, controlling and wiping out animal diseases. The coalition added the antibiotics used on farms are safe and approved by the FDA.

The Health Committee voted the Food Safety Modernization Act out of committee with no votes on amendments, including the one that would limit the use of antibiotics in food animals. S. 510 still has a long way to go, and the antibiotic amendment could come up again for further action.

Dr. Betsy Booren, director of scientific affairs for the American Meat Institute, says humans who eat food made from animals that consumed antibiotics in feed do not develop bacteria resistance to antibiotics. She adds the idea antibiotic residues in humans can cause such resistance is a misconception. She says animals are given antibiotics to keep them healthy, not to promote quicker growth or to compensate for crowded conditions in large poultry, livestock or swine facilities, as opposing scientists have charged.

An Iowa State Univ. study found when pigs are slaughtered and have been ill due to lack of use of antibiotics, more food pathogens can be found on their carcasses, resulting in a potential source of foodborne illness, according to the National Pork Producers Council. National Chicken Council spokesman Dick Lobb told Meat&Poultry the FDA forced an antibiotic effective in treating poultry flock illnesses off the market due to concerns it would make similar antibiotics less effective in treating human illnesses. After a five-year battle, Bayer Corp. said it would no longer sell Baytril, an antibiotic similar to the human antibiotic Cipro, for use in poultry flocks.

This "Christmas-tree approach" to food safety discourages legislation from being considered on its own merits. Instead, members of Congress will "Christmas tree" amendments onto bills hoping the "tree" will receive a positive vote. These amendments would never even be considered legislatively on their own.

The FDA Food Safety Modernization Act of 2009, as is, poses problems for the food industry. The legislation would increase government oversight of industry by expanding FDA authority. It would allow FDA to conduct mandatory recalls, increase inspection rates and collection of fees, and require all facilities to have food-safety plans.

Industry is very concerned about mandatory recall authority. Its lobbyists are working with the Senate committee to provide indemnification for companies subject to an overly broad mandatory FDA recall. The industry would also like more scientifically-based performance standards in the legislation, as well as making the government prove it should suspend a facility’s registration. There are also fears many provisions could be adopted by USDA, with even more direct effects on the meat and poultry industry.

Food-safety concerns need to be discussed and acted on by Congress in a logical way. Congress adding "branches" to the food-safety Christmas tree without any discussion or debate is not responsible lawmaking – and is not going to make improvements to the American food-safety system.

Bernard Shire is M&P’s Washington correspondent and a contributing editor for the magazine, based in Lancaster, Pa. With a background in editing and writing for daily news publications, he also works as a food safety consultant and writer for Shire & Associates.
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