House vote expected this week on food safety bill

McClatchy NewspapersJuly 27, 2009 

WASHINGTON — The nation's food suppliers will face new fees, inspections and penalties under a multibillion-dollar food safety bill set for approval as early as Wednesday by the House of Representatives.

From importers and growers to processors and distributors, the painstakingly negotiated 133-page bill touches every facet of the U.S. food supply chain. While taxpayers and businesses will pay more, consumers are supposed to be safer.

"There is no partisan gap when it comes to keeping the food supply safe," declared Rep. Henry Waxman, D.-Calif, the chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

Enacting the tougher food safety measures, such as increased inspections, will cost the federal government $3.5 billion during the next five years. New industry inspection and registration fees will pay for nearly half the tab.

The bill's full impact, however, can't yet be known. In part, that's because lawmakers were still negotiating provisions as late as Monday. Major farm organizations remained skeptical or even opposed outright pending further changes in the bill.

"Let's proceed cautiously," Jack King, the manager of national affairs for the California Farm Bureau Federation, said Monday. "All of a sudden, we have a new layer of government authority in how crops are produced. We think that's a real leap."

For instance, the bill approved by Waxman's committee requires "risk-based standards for the safe growing, harvesting, processing, packing, sorting, transporting and holding" of raw fruits and vegetables. The Department of Health and Human Services has three years to write the precise standards.

The Food Safety Enhancement Act marks the latest congressional bid to boost consumer protections following high-profile incidents such as the 2006 distribution of e.coli-contaminated spinach from California's Salinas Valley. More recently, salmonella has been traced to pistachios processed at Setton Pistachio of Terra Bella, in California's San Joaquin Valley.

Often, though, people fall ill without making headlines. An estimated 325,000 U.S. residents are hospitalized and some 5,000 die each year because of foodborne disease, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates.

The legislation set for House approval this week is credited to Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich. Dingell has adopted some provisions offered by his colleagues as well as lobbying groups such as the Grocery Manufacturers Association.

"(This will) go a long way to comforting our consumers and boosting their confidence in the safety of our nation's food supply, particularly the stuff coming in from abroad," said Dingell, who last year was unseated by Waxman as the panel's chairman.

House leaders set the technically complex food safety bill for approval by voice vote, a procedure usually reserved for non-controversial measures. The procedure doesn't allow for any floor amendments and requires a two-thirds vote to pass.

The Senate still must approve its own legislation, and House and Senate negotiators will have to resolve their differences.

House provisions include:

  • Food producing and processing facilities already must register with the FDA. The bill stiffens this requirement to require annual registration renewal, as well as payment of a new $500 registration fee.
  • Food facilities must prepare a "hazard analysis" and develop food safety plans. An estimated 360,000 facilities nationwide face FDA inspections under the bill.
  • The FDA could impose a quarantine of a geographic area in order to stop shipment of potentially contaminated food. This causes concern among agricultural groups and their Capitol Hill allies, who are hoping to revise the provision.
  • "Quarantine language that would shut down an entire region should be unnecessary," said Rep. George Radanovich, R-Calif., during House Energy and Commerce consideration, warning of risks to "innocent producers, packers and distributors in the region (faced) with the stigma of a quarantine."

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