House passes bill to give FDA new food-safety authority

Additional regulation may bring them back to the table.
Additional regulation may bring them back to the table.

WASHINGTON — The House of Representatives on Thursday approved a big food safety bill by a 283-142 margin.

The legislation could affect every facet of the nation's food supply chain, from farm to grocery store. Questions still linger about the 159-page Food Safety Enhancement Act; some of them have answers.

Q: What does the bill do?

A: It raises money, boosts inspections and empowers the Food and Drug Administration.

The legislation assesses new $500-a-year fees on food processors and other facilities that must register every year; the fee will increase annually with inflation. These fees will raise about $1.5 billion over five years, which will combine with an estimated $2 billion provided by Congress.

The money, in part, will pay for inspections and monitoring of about 360,000 domestic and foreign food facilities. The FDA also gains new clout, including subpoena power, mandatory food recall authority and the ability to impose a regional quarantine if officials have a "reasonable belief" that there's a risk of death or serious illness.

Q: Will there be a lot of paperwork involved?

A: Yes, for some.

Within 18 months after the bill becomes law, food facility operators must prepare a food safety plan. The plans must identify potential hazards and prevention techniques and describe plans for recalling and tracing dangerous foods, among other things. Facilities must also maintain records concerning the "production, manufacture, processing, packing, transporting, distribution, receipt, holding or importation" of foods, and make these available to the FDA upon request.

Q: Sounds ambitious. What doesn't the food safety bill cover?

A: Farms, in part.

The bill, despite being about food, excludes in some cases the places where food is actually produced. It exempts wineries as well as farms and facilities already regulated by the Agriculture Department under rules that govern meat, poultry and eggs. Small businesses, moreover, will have longer to comply.

Q: Does the bill specify new food safety standards?

A: Not yet.

The bill orders federal agencies to prepare certain food safety regulations. These highly detailed regulations, however, will be years in the making.

The bill, notably, gives the Department of Health and Human Services three years to establish "science-based standards for the safe growing, harvesting, packing, sorting, transporting and holding of raw agricultural commodities." These standards could cover everything from manure control and employee hygiene to water quality.

Federal officials must also prepare regulations establishing a tracing system to "identify each person who grows, produces, manufacturers, processes, packs, transports, holds or sells" dangerous food.

Q: What do farmers think about this?

A: It depends on the farmer.

The California Farm Bureau Federation opposes the bill, citing in part the possibility that farmers will pay stiff $20,000-a-day penalties for recordkeeping violations. The California farm organization also raises concerns about the FDA's new quarantine and recall powers.

The United Fresh Produce Association, however, supports the bill. The American Farm Bureau Federation, the U.S. Rice Federation and the National Pork Producers Council likewise have either dropped their previous opposition or now support the bill outright.

Q: The House rejected the bill Wednesday, but approved it Thursday. What gives?

A: Chalk this up to parliamentary maneuvering.

On Wednesday, House Democratic leaders brought H.R. 2749 to the floor under procedures that prohibited amendments and limited debate to 40 minutes. The price for this fast-tracking was a requirement that the bill win a two-thirds vote. The 280-150 margin Wednesday fell short.

On Thursday, determined to get the bill passed before the August recess, Democratic leaders returned the bill under normal voting procedures, while still blocking potential Republican amendments.

Q: When does the bill take effect?

A: Not so fast.

The Senate, where debate can really be stretched out, still must approve its own version. House and Senate negotiators will then have to work out their differences.


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