US food safety bill enters final lap

By Rory Harrington

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Food safety, United states senate

A US Senate committee unanimously approved the food safety bill yesterday in a move that will send the landmark legislation to the full floor for a final vote.

Senior members of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee finished debating and amending The FDA Food Safety Modernization Act at a Senate hearing. The process – known as marking up – saw the measure clear another major hurdle prior to facing one further decisive round of deliberation in the US upper house before passing into law.

But Committee chairman Senator Tom Harkin said it was unlikely that the bill would be considered before Christmas given the amount of Senate time being taken up by President Obama’s healthcare reforms.

The panel also omitted a clause that would charge food firms $500 a year to help fund increased plant inspections. The Iowa senator said he was sceptical of the idea and that the taxpayer should meet the cost of safeguarding US food supply. He added he was waiting for an assessment from the Congressional Budget Office on the cost of implementing the proposed new regime.

Jean Halloran, of Consumers Union’s Food Policy Initiatives, called on Harkin to change his mind on the issue, saying a “dedicated revenue stream”​ was for this funding was necessary. She said that if the food safety budget was funded only from Congress appropriations, lawmakers may be tempted to cut contributions if there were no major food contamination outbreaks over a prolonged period.

The approval by the HELP Committee was welcomed by a host of consumer and industry groups including the Food Marketing Institute (FMI) and the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI).

Pamela G. Bailey, President and CEO of the Grocery Manufacturer’s Association (GMA), said: “We applaud the HELP Committee for its bipartisan approval of the bill which will provide the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) with the resources and authorities the agency needs to help make prevention the focus of our food safety strategies.”

Bipartisan

Harkin and Republican ranking member Mike Enzi were among those who had already stressed the committee’s bipartisan approach to the scrutiny of the bill that is set to revamp the country’s food safety system.

“This Mark is a forward looking bill that comprehensively reforms our current food safety system yet is adaptable enough to keep pace with an evolving industry,”​ said Harkin in his opening address to the hearing.

He added: “It recognises that preventive controls are an essential means to improve food safety, and it addresses the need to enhance surveillance, improve emergency response coordination, and heighten the scrutiny of imported foods. Importantly, it also recognises that, while changes to our system must be real and effective, they must not be excessively burdensome.”

Senator Dick Durbin, who introduced the bill along with Senator Gregg, said the mark up was an important step towards boosting US food safety.

“This bill gives the FDA the ability to respond quickly and effectively when outbreaks occur,”​ he said. “This bipartisan legislation is the right fix to address the challenges facing our food safety system and will go a long way to keep Americans healthy.”

Bill highlights

The legislation would introduce a raft of measures designed to significantly improve the US food safety system. It requires all facilities that manufacture, process, pack or hold food to have risk-based preventive control plans in place to tackle to hazards and prevent adulteration. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) must be given access to these documents. Restaurants and most farms are exempt from this rule.

Importers must verify the safety of foreign suppliers and imported food. The FDA can demand certification for high-risk foods, and to deny entry to a food that lacks certification or that is from a foreign facility that has refused US inspectors.

The bill would impose a new inspection regime. The FDA would be required to check high-risk plants annually and others every four years.

Under the proposals, the FDA would have the authority to order a mandatory recall of a food product if there is serious health risk or death, and if the company had failed to carry out a FDA request for a voluntarily recall. The agency can detain adulterated or misbranded food.

The FDA would receive greater funding both from the government and controversially by levying inspection fees from food processors and manufacturers. The industry contribution proposal is now in doubt following yesterday's meeting.

Related topics: Food safety and labeling, Food safety

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