Congress to consider three bills on food safety reform

by Jay Sjerven
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WASHINGTON — Similar bipartisan bills were introduced in the Senate and the House of Representatives in the past couple of weeks to modernize and strengthen the food safety activities of the Food and Drug Administration. Earlier, Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut with 39 co-sponsors introduced a bill proposing even more far reaching changes for the F.D.A.

That Congress has three food safety bills to consider this session and none calls for the establishment of a single food safety agency — combining in a new entity the food safety operations of the F.D.A., which is part of the Department of Health and Human Services, and the Food Safety Inspection Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture — reflected a sense of urgency to enact legislation this year.

The F.D.A. Food Safety Modernization Act (S.510) was introduced in the Senate on March 3 by Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois and eight co-sponsors, including Republican Senators Judd Gregg of New Hampshire, Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, Johnny Isakson of Georgia and Richard Burr of North Carolina, and Democratic Senators Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts, Christopher Dodd of Connecticut and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota.

Mr. Durbin said in introducing the bill, "Today’s bipartisan bill will improve the F.D.A.’s ability to prevent foodborne illness outbreaks and ensure F.D.A. responds quickly and effectively when outbreaks occur."

Mr. Gregg said, "Recent outbreaks of foodborne illness and nationwide recalls of contaminated food from both domestic and foreign sources highlight the need for Congress to act to modernize and strengthen our nation’s food safety laws."

To summarize the bill, the authors presented nine highlights, four relating to preventing food safety problems and five relating to improving detection of foodborne illness and agency response.

On preventing food safety problems, the bill would require all food manufacturing facilities to develop and implement food safety plans that identify all points of potential hazard in the manufacturing process that must be monitored and controlled to prevent food adulteration. The bill would give the F.D.A. access to the plans and relevant documentation. Minimums standards for the plans developed by the F.D.A. would have to be met.

Second, the bill would expand the F.D.A.’s access to company records during a food emergency. Third, it would allow the F.D.A. to recognize laboratory accreditation bodies to ensure U.S. food testing laboratories meet high quality standards. Results of food testing performed by these laboratories would have to be reported to the F.D.A. The bill would allow the F.D.A. to enable qualified third parties to certify foreign food facilities comply with U.S. food safety standards. And, fourth, the bill would require importers verify the safety of foreign suppliers. The F.D.A. would be authorized to require certification for imported high-risk foods and to deny entry to a food that lacks certification or that is from a foreign facility that turned away U.S. inspectors.

With regard to improving the F.D.A.’s capacity to detect and respond to foodborne illness outbreaks, the bill would increase F.D.A. inspections at all food facilities, including annual inspections of high-risk facilities and inspections of other facilities at least once every four years. Second, it would enhance foodborne illness surveillance systems to improve the collection, analysis and reporting of data. Third, it would require the secretary of H.H.S. to establish a pilot project to test and evaluate new methods for rapidly and effectively tracking/tracing fruits and vegetables in the event of a foodborne illness outbreak.

Fourth, it would give the F.D.A. the authority to order a mandatory recall of a food product when a company fails to voluntarily recall the product upon the agency’s request. And fifth, it would empower the F.D.A. to suspend a food facility’s registration if there is a reasonable probability that food from the facility will cause serious health consequences or death.

In all these aspects, the Safe Food Enforcement, Assessment, Standards and Targeting Act (Safe FEAST in Safe FEAST. The Senate bill called for $825 million in funding for the F.D.A.’s food safety operations in fiscal 2010 (for the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, the Center for Veterinary Medicine and the Office of Regulatory Affairs). It also called for increasing the food safety field staff of the F.D.A. to no fewer than 3,800 persons in fiscal 2010, 4,000 in 2011, 4,200 in 2012, 4,600 in 2013 and 5,000 in 2014, and for providing the additional funding required to accomplish the staffing increases.

The Food Safety Modernization Act (H.R.875) introduced on Feb. 4 by Ms. DeLauro stood apart from the other bills in its proposal to establish a food safety administration within the H.H.S. that would consolidate all of the food safety functions of the F.D.A. Act, or H.R.1332) introduced in the House on March 5 by Representatives Jim Costa of California and Adam Putman of Florida and 20 co-sponsors was in accord with the Senate bill. The Senate and House bills also would authorize the F.D.A. to collect fees to cover the costs of required re-inspection of facilities and recalls.

The Senate bill had funding and staffing provisions lacking

The position of administrator of food safety would be created with this person reporting directly to the secretary of H.H.S. A separate entity under the H.H.S. would aggregate the F.D.A.’s drug and medical equipment inspection and approval activities.

The DeLauro bill also proposed a much more robust food facility inspection regime. A food processing facility would be enrolled in one of five categories for inspection based on risk. Facilities manufacturing products with greatest risk, primarily animal slaughter facilities, would require daily and ongoing inspection. The frequency of inspection would decrease with the risk to weekly, monthly, quarterly and annually.

Industry groups favored the Senate bill and Safe FEAST over the bill proposed by Ms. DeLauro. Pam Bailey, president and chief executive officer of the Grocery Manufacturers Association, praised both the Senate bill and the Safe FEAST Act.

"In particular, G.M.A. supports the requirement that all food companies have a comprehensive food safety plan in place," Ms. Bailey said. "It is absolutely critical that manufacturers take a preventative approach in identifying and evaluating potential hazards, and building food safety into the manufacturing process from the very beginning."

Kraig R. Naasz, president and c.e.o. of the American Frozen Food Institute, said, "The food industry accepts primary responsibility for ensuring the safety and quality of our food supply. As such, A.F.F.I. concurs with the (Senate) bill’s cornerstone provision that food companies should be expected to identify potential hazards that might occur in the production and processing of their products and companies should determine the most effective controls for those hazards."

Dr. Robert Whitaker, chief science officer of the Produce Marketing Association (P.M.A.), said, "Recent regulatory problems have diminished public confidence in our government’s oversight of food safety, and we support legislation that assists F.D.A.’s own efforts to adapt the regulatory system to today’s marketplace and public health complexities."

Kathy Means, vice-president of government relations and public affairs at the P.M.A., said, "Representatives Jim Costa and Adam Putnam and Senators Dick Durbin, Judd Gregg, Ted Kennedy and Richard Burr should be commended for their leadership on this issue."

This article can also be found in the digital edition of Food Business News, March 17, 2009, starting on Page 30. Click here to search that archive.

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