WASHINGTON — A bill to overhaul the safety of the nation's food supply is confusingly written and must not go forward until the Food and Drug Administration power over grain and livestock is removed, food industry representatives and members of Congress said Thursday.
Industry representatives from the American Meat Institute, the National Farmers Union, and other groups, as well as some lawmakers, don't think the FDA has enough experience or people to regulate grain and livestock, a job that traditionally has fallen to the Agriculture Department.
They're also concerned the bill's new user fees would be too expensive, the paperwork too confusing, and the mandatory recalls unnecessary.
"I have to have tremendous documentation, if it were to have an inadvertent mistake, I don't want to get a fine," Nicholas Maravell, the owner of Nick's Organic Farm in Potomac, Md., said of the paperwork requirements. "I'm very concerned about this. I'm not understanding what aspects would affect me."
The bill they opposed, the Food Safety Enhancement Act, was approved last month by the House Energy and Commerce Committee. Thursday's hearing was before the House Agriculture Committee, which must also approve the bill.
The bill would give the FDA increased power and funding to help ensure food is safe, requiring for the first time civil penalties for food contamination.
Representatives from the FDA and the Agriculture Department, as well as consumer advocacy groups, like the bill. Jerold Mande, deputy undersecretary of the USDA Office of Food Safety, told the committee a stronger FDA would make it easier for the two groups to work together.
Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., the chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, said he'd meet with other lawmakers to find an agreement, and if they can't, he vowed to block the bill.
"I'm a little skeptical of the FDA to have the knowledge base to be on the farm," Peterson said. "It's just not a sensible thing. They just don't have the people do to this, and the people they do have don't understand."
With a number of recent contamination outbreaks affecting cookie dough, spinach, peppers, and other common foods, the government is under increasing pressure to overhaul food safety rules.
Every year, one in four Americans are sickened by food, and about 5,000 die, according the Centers for Disease Control. While lawmakers repeatedly touted the nation's food supply as the safest in the world, in April the CDC said food safety is no longer improving.
In March, President Barack Obama formed a working group to examine food safety issues. Its recommendations, which include greater Agriculture Department and FDA authority and an emphasis on prevention, are the subject of several congressional bills, including the one under scrutiny at Thursday's hearing. The working group's recommendations didn't include FDA oversight of grain and livestock.
The FDA wants that authority. "The legislation would indeed transform our nation's approach to food safety from responding to outbreaks to preventing them," Michael R. Taylor, a senior adviser to the FDA commissioner, said in written testimony.
A food safety advocacy group, Safe Tables Our Priority, objected to the makeup of the panel of witnesses Thursday. Only one out 11 witnesses at the hearing represented consumers and victims of foodborne illness. However, lawmakers and the food industry representatives stressed that it was in nobody's interest for people to die from eating contaminated food.
"We're not callous and heartless to these tragedies these families have suffered," said Rep. Michael Conaway, R-Texas. "But we're worried about unintended consequences of this legislation, which would be detrimental to the system."
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