When Congress had a chance, food safety wasn't its choice

WASHINGTON — Tainted tomatoes highlight how Congress forfeited some food-safety opportunities in the new farm bill.

A nationwide salmonella outbreak attributed to tomatoes comes just as Congress and President Bush are finishing their farm bill tug-of-war. The bill about to become law omits some of the highest-profile food-safety proposals that lawmakers once offered.

"Food safety is never a key issue for any farm bill," Chris Waldrop, the food policy director for the Consumer Federation of America, said Tuesday.

The omission appears particularly poignant now, as at least 167 people in 17 states have fallen ill from salmonella poisoning since mid-April. The Food and Drug Administration is urging consumers to avoid raw Roma, plum or red round tomatoes. Restaurants including McDonald's have removed them from their menus temporarily.

This isn't a one-of-a-kind occurrence. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 300,000 Americans are hospitalized each year, and 5,000 die, because of food-borne illnesses. The farm bill nonetheless remains silent on many food-safety issues.

The Senate, for instance, originally wanted a new 15-member food-safety commission to conduct a wide-ranging study and issue recommendations. The proposed commission ran into opposition in the House of Representatives, and negotiators killed it.

Similarly, Rep. Dennis Cardoza, D-Calif., wanted to move border plant and animal inspectors back to the Agriculture Department. The demoralized inspectors feel shortchanged under the Department of Homeland Security, congressional investigators said. The Bush administration opposed the transfer, and the provision died.

"The agriculture committees' orientation is not food safety," Waldrop said. "You can make small, incremental steps, but you are never going to make big structural food-safety changes through a farm bill."

There are several reasons for that.

Politically, the House and Senate agriculture committee members who write the farm bill tend to be protective of agribusiness. They aren't out to make enemies by imposing strict new rules.

Procedurally, responsibility for food safety is scattered among some 15 federal agencies. The farm bill focuses on the Agriculture Department, which handles meat and poultry. Produce and seafood are handled by the Food and Drug Administration. The standalone phrase "Food and Drug Administration" doesn't appear anywhere in the 673-page farm bill conference report, and the FDA is largely outside the bill's coverage.

Tactically, some lawmakers feared that a food safety commission would sap momentum for a more ambitious FDA overhaul. On Thursday, a House Energy and Commerce Committee panel will hold a hearing on the FDA's food-safety work, with some House members pressing to give the federal agency mandatory-recall authority over tainted food.

"This situation is another chilling example of the flaws in our nation's food-safety system," declared Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Colo.

In other cases, though, farm bill authors retreated from measures that some feared would undermine food safety.

Western fruit and vegetable growers, for instance, hoped that the farm bill would authorize self-regulation through industry-run marketing orders. Handlers of California leafy greens imposed such a plan after a 2006 outbreak of sickness traced to Salinas-area spinach tainted by E. coli bacteria. Environmentalists successfully opposed the idea of giving industry more power to regulate itself.

"It is clear from the California leafy-green experience that it is bad for natural resources and environmental protection," said Ferd Hoefner, the policy director for the Sustainable Agriculture Coalition.

The sprawling farm bill includes 15 titles, or subject areas, ranging from commodities to energy. Food safety doesn't merit its own title. The farm bill has a five-year price tag of $289 billion to $307 billion. Only a small percentage of that addresses food safety. For instance, a new $230 million specialty crop research-grant program devotes an unspecified fraction to fresh-produce safety.