Congress to FDA: Get Proactive

Senate approves bill increasing tests for unsafe foods; bill returns to House for revote

Abbie Westra, Director, Editorial, CSP

WASHINGTON -- The U.S. Senate yesterday passed legislation that would greatly increase the power of the federal Food & Drug Administration (FDA) over food-safety issues, among them, recall powers, plant inspections and produce regulation.

Senate Bill 510, or the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act, passed by a vote of 73 to 25. The House of Representatives first passed the bill in July 2009, but because the Senate made changes to it, it must go back to the House before landing on President Obama's desk.

The bill could still die because the shortened lame-duck session [image-nocss] leaves little time for debate between the two branches, though top House Democrats said they are willing to simply pass the Senate version to speed up approval.

Industry organizations from the National Restaurant Association to the Food Marketing Institute (FMI) have supported the bill because of the costly food scares of recent years. Contaminated spinach from one producer led to an industrywide decimation of the crop a few years ago, and this summer's egg recall caused a large dip in egg sales, though only two suppliers were involved.

"With today's Senate vote, we have taken another important step toward modernizing America's food-safety network and focusing on preventing problems before they occur, rather than just reacting to them," FMI said in a statement.

Advocates are now pushing legislators to pass the bill before the end of the year.

The bill's provisions all aim at creating a food chain in which unsafe foods are detected before outbreaks occur--proactive instead of reactive. The bill's key provisions: Give the FDA the power to demand food recalls. Currently the agency can only work with firms to create voluntary recalls. Require larger food processors and manufacturers to register with the FDA and create detailed food-safety plans. Greatly increase the number of inspections the FDA must conduct of processing plants, with an emphasis on high-risk foods. Give the FDA more control over imported foods, including increased inspection of foreign plants and the ability to set standards for how produce is grown abroad. Require grocery stores to post a list of recently recalled foods or to alert consumers in other ways. Require the FDA to create new produce-safety regulations for producers of the highest-risk fruits and vegetables. Also, just this week, a provision was added that excludes small farms and food processors with annual sales under $500,000 from the new regulations if they sell their goods directly to consumers or foodservice operators within 275 miles of the production site.

The bill does not address meat safety, which is the responsibility of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

Before the elections, the Senate was involved in some testy partisan squabbling over the bill. Senator Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) forced months of delay, eventually pushing Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada to call a number of procedural votes to end the debate. Coburn, who argued that the bill would cost taxpayers too much and that the FDA could get overzealous with its powers, created his own version of the legislation, which failed.

While the industry was largely content with the passage of S. 510, some groups were displeased by the defeat of two amendments that would have repealed new 1099 reporting requirements. The law, actually part of the 2010 healthcare reform act, requires businesses to report all business transactions, including services and materials, with a vendor valued at more than $600.

"When the law goes into effect in 2012, the 1099 reporting requirement will impose substantial paperwork and reporting burdens on all small businesses, which will dramatically increase accounting costs, impose unjustified audits by the IRS and subject more small businesses to the challenges of electronic filing," the Petroleum Marketers Association of America (PMAA) said in a statement.

Abbie Westra, CSP/Winsight By Abbie Westra, Director, Editorial, CSP
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