Politics & Government

Food safety bill comes up short in House vote

A bin full of freshly harvested pistachios. Pistachios, from a California plant, were subject to a food warning in March 2009.
A bin full of freshly harvested pistachios. Pistachios, from a California plant, were subject to a food warning in March 2009. John Walker / Fresno Bee / MCT

WASHINGTON — The House of Representatives failed Wednesday to pass an ambitious food-safety plan that's dividing rural lawmakers and the nation's farm groups.

An overwhelming majority of the House voted for the bill, 280-150. The support, though, fell six votes short of the two-thirds needed under special House rules.

On Wednesday night, House leaders rescheduled the bill for another vote on Thursday; this time, under rules requiring only majority approval for passage.

The unexpected defeat isn't necessarily fatal to food safety efforts, as the legislation can return under regular rules that allow a majority vote. Its rejection Wednesday, though, underscored persistent concerns about what the bill does and how it was written.

"We don't need more government to create safe food," said California Republican Rep. Devin Nunes. "I think we've already proven that growing the government doesn't work."

The vote embarrassed House Democratic leaders, who were hoping to enter the August recess with a victory under their belts. Their decision to bring up the bill under special rules protected it from amendments, but it also set the two-thirds threshold, which proved too demanding.

The $3.5 billion measure would boost safety inspections and expand federal authority over how food is grown, processed and distributed. It's the biggest food-safety rewrite in many years.

"This legislation will stop Americans from being killed by bad food," said the bill's author, Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich.

The measure was being rewritten almost to the last minute Wednesday, and skeptics complained that few lawmakers had a chance to read it.

"This is just another expansion of federal power without the benefit of careful consideration," said Rep. Frank Lucas of Oklahoma, the senior Republican on the House Agriculture Committee.

Even with the last-minute changes, some agriculture organizations oppose the Food Safety Enhancement Act, citing potential $20,000-a-day fines and the enhanced power that federal authorities would be granted.

Other farm organizations, such as the National Pork Producers Council, found something to like in the bill, which has grown to at least 159 pages.

"There are some concerns we still have, but the good outweighs the bad," said Barry Bedwell, the president of the California Grape and Tree Fruit League. "The time has come for food safety legislation; it's not the time to say no."

Ray Gilmer, the vice president of communications for the United Fresh Produce Association, added that it's "unfortunate" that the House failed to pass the bill, but he expressed hope that the "procedural hitch" could be overcome relatively quickly.

Currently, the measure would raise money through new $500-a-year fees, which food processors and other facilities would pay. Farms are exempted from the new fee and registration requirements.

The bill would expand Food and Drug Administration enforcement powers. It also would direct federal officials to prepare sweeping new safety regulations.

Notably, the legislation would require "risk-based standards for the safe growing, harvesting, processing, packing, sorting, transporting and holding" of raw fruits, vegetables and nuts. The Department of Health and Human Services has three years to write the precise standards.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 76 million cases of food-borne disease occur annually in the United States, with an estimated 325,000 requiring hospitalization.

Within the past 10 days, the Salinas, Calif., firm Tanimura & Antle recalled romaine lettuce because of potential salmonella contamination and the McAllen, Texas, company Sweet Superior Fruit recalled cilantro shipments for the same reason.

While these recalls were voluntary, the bill would empower the FDA to compel mandatory food recalls in the event of "imminent threat of serious adverse health consequences." Similar circumstances also would allow the FDA to impose a regional food quarantine.

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