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Senate Passes Historic Food Safety Bill, Now What?

Senate Approves Food Safety Bill 73-25, But Road Ahead Looks Rocky:

In a rare demonstration of bipartisanship, the Senate passed the most sweeping food safety reform bill in seven decades Tuesday morning. Despite high tempers in the wake of a contentious cycle, the upper chamber voted 73-25 vote to approve S. 510, the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act, a bill that would increase the Food and Drug Administration’s fractured oversight of an increasingly globalized food supply.

Though the bill’s passage–lauded by the major food industry, consumer, and public health groups–follows a similar measure that passed the House with bipartisan support in July 2009, the road ahead for comprehensive food safety reform is uncertain.  With the clock running on the lame duck session, most advocates for the bill want to see the House take up the Senate version as soon as possible to get the legislation to President Obama’s desk.

In a statement yesterday, Obama called on the House to act quickly on the legislation.  ”I urge the House–which has previously passed legislation demonstrating its strong commitment to making our food supply safer–to act quickly on this critical bill, and I applaud the work that was done to ensure its broad bipartisan passage in the Senate.”

Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA), a key proponent of the measure in the Senate, indicated before Thanksgiving that key leaders in the House agreed to take up the Senate version, but it is not clear that is the game plan for House leadership.  The House version of the bill requires far more frequent inspections, augments the cost of the bill with a flat $500 fee for each food facility, and does not contain a hard-fought amendment to exempt small farms and food producers from certain new regulations.

House lawmakers who worked tirelessly to get bipartisan support for their version in 2009 have been noncommittal about adopting the Senate version.

“The Senate bill makes improvements to FDA’s existing authorities to ensure the safety of the American food supply just as the House bill does,” Rep. John Dingell (D-MI), who has been working on food safety legislation for years, told Food Safety News yesterday.  ”I commend my colleagues for their hard work over the past year and four months.  However, there are some remaining concerns with the final Senate legislation, but the Senate bill is a still a giant leap forward toward ensuring the safety of the American food supply.”

“I look forward to discussing the Senate bill with my House colleagues and determining what the appropriate next steps should be to ensure that we provide the greatest protections for American’s consumers,” added Dingell.

To add to the uncertainty in the House, large produce industry groups, including the United Fresh Produce Association and the Produce Marking Association, are working feverishly to convince lawmakers that the final legislation should not include the small farm exemptions, which were recently adopted into the Senate bill at the urging of Sens. Jon Tester (D-MT and Kay Hagan (D-NC).

The Tester-Hagan amendment intends to protect small farmers and the burgeoning local food movement from cumbersome regulation.  The larger produce industry, which is in favor of broad safety requirements to help prevent dangerous and economically damaging foodborne illness outbreaks, has remained squarely against any blanket exemptions based solely on farm size or geography.

“We’re pushing for a conference and for the removal of the Tester amendment.  We think there is time to do conference,” Robert Guenther, executive vice president of public policy at United Fresh, told Food Safety News yesterday.  ”[The amendment] fundamentally undermines the entire legislation, the rest of the bill is science- and risk-based.”

Guenther said the industry would continue to push against the amendment, which he called “arbitrary” and “politically expedient.”

Though disagreements remain, the prospect of a conference committee to iron out key differences is seriously in question with so many competing items on the Congressional agenda–including the Bush-era tax cuts and the defense reauthorization bill, which includes a provision to repeal the controversial “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.

Casting further doubt on the bill’s chances at becoming law before the new year, Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call reported late last night predicted the food safety bill will likely be sent back to the Senate because Democrats violated Article 1, Section 7 of the Constitution, which clearly states that revenue-raising provisions originate in the House.

According to Roll Call, Section 107 of S. 510, which allows for the collection of fees, has “ruffled the features of Ways and Means Democrats” who are expected to use a procedure known inside the beltway as “blue slipping” to block the legislation.

“We understand there is a blue slip problem, and we expect the House to assert its rights under the Constitution to be the place where revenue bills begin,” a GOP aide told the paper.

If the House blue slips the bill, Senate Democrats would have to use precious floor time to go back through procedural votes to re-introduce an amended version of the bill because Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) would, as he did earlier this year, object to a unanimous consent agreement to limit debate on the bill.

Sen. Coburn remains the most outspoken opponent of the legislation, arguing that it does not address systemic problems with federal food safety oversight and is too costly. Coburn introduced a substitute bill on Tuesday that failed in a 36-62 vote.  

© Food Safety News
  • Steve Gilman

    It’s interesting that after holding their noses up til now on the sidelines — United Fresh and Big Produce Handlers have finally come out of the woodwork to oppose this bill — and are trying to pin their opposition on the so-called “exemptions” for small scale farmers — when it’s their own interests that they’re clearly trying to protect.
    Meanwhile, their captive farmers have to pay to play in their industrial food game — big leafy greens growers in California, for example, are subject to hugely expensive metrics requiring them to bulldoze 30′ bare strips around their fields, drain ponds and poison frogs and mice, etc. in non-scientifically substantiated attempts at “food safety” — or rather window dressing.
    Big Produce knows how ruinous one-size-fits-all regs are to small scale farmers — and would love to kill this S.510 bill so that the little guys would be subject to the onerous oversight provisions that FDA already got under the hastily put together Bioterrorism Act of 2002 — and finally get this local food movement (which shows them for who they are) out of their face.

  • http://www.healthyfoodcoalition.org hhamil

    How does “bi-partisan” describe the final vote? Only in that there were both Democrats and Republicans who voted for the S 510. A cursory analysis reveals that they actual vote was far from truly bi-partisan.
    100% of the Democrats voted “yea;” meanwhile 100% of the “nay” votes were Republican.
    Plus, all of the Republicans voting “yea,” except for four [Vitter (LA), Kirk (IL), Lugar (IN) and Voinovich (OH)] had earlier voted “yea” for Coburn’s substitute WHICH WOULD HAVE REPLACED WHAT WAS PASSED. Included in those who voted for Coburn’s substitute was EVERY Republican co-sponsor of S 510 except David Vitter of LA. All 3 Republican bill managers’ committee voted for Coburn’s substitute.
    Finally, 3 Republican co-sponsors withdrew their co-sponsorship and voted “nay” on the final bill.

  • Doc Mudd

    Hopefully the House can purge the soppy superstition and woo from the Senate version of the bill and restore the intent of universal food safety by removing arbitrary “small farm” loopholes that fly in the face of basic food science.
    No legitimate food producer, regardless of size, can be unfairly injured by a monitored commitment to produce safe food – heck, they’re aspiring to be ‘food producers’, after all, right?. This has nothing to do with competition and everything to do with capability…and integrity.
    Otherwise let them become Christmas tree growers or firewood salesmen – maybe they could do that without risking the public health, eh? Let’s hope they could do that without the incessant complaining and disingenuous martyr role playing. Oh, probably not.

  • http://www.healthyfoodcoalition.org Harry Hamil

    How does “bi-partisan” describe the final vote? Only in that there were both Democrats and Republicans who voted for the S 510. A cursory analysis reveals that they actual vote was far from truly bi-partisan.
    100% of the Democrats voted “yea;” meanwhile 100% of the “nay” votes were Republican.
    Plus, all of the Republicans voting “yea,” except for four [Vitter (LA), Kirk (IL), Lugar (IN) and Voinovich (OH)] had earlier voted “yea” for Coburn’s substitute WHICH WOULD HAVE REPLACED WHAT WAS PASSED. Included in those who voted for Coburn’s substitute was EVERY Republican co-sponsor of S 510 except David Vitter of LA. All 3 Republican bill managers’ committee voted for Coburn’s substitute.
    Finally, 3 Republican co-sponsors withdrew their co-sponsorship and voted “nay” on the final bill.

  • dangermaus

    I bet you a buck most of the Republican Senators’ “yea” votes for this bill are going to come back to haunt them in 2014.

  • Doc Mudd

    You overestimate the relative societal importance and political consequence of your whacky hobby farm lobby, dangermaus, but only by “a buck”. Aren’t you any deeper into the Kool-Aid than that?
    How many more grocery recalls and food poisonings will we have endured by your drop-dead date in 2014? A few of us care about that…quite a few of us, actually.

  • Philip

    Yes the FDA has done such a wonderful job with drug safety let’s expand their powers over food. They’ll set those Amish dairy farmers straight. There is a write-up on this at the Health Journal Club which takes a different tack.
    http://healthjournalclub.blogspot.com/2010/12/im-dreaming-of-blue-christmas.html
    Quote: “Enter Senate Bill S510 the Food Safety and Modernization Act, a phrase of government newspeak which should make the hair stand up on the back of any thinking creature’s neck. We don’t need our food supply “modernized” by legislation passed to the whims of the likes of Monsanto, Cargill or the rest of the cloned, transgenic, pesticide, terminator seed, processed, commercial food oligopoly pushers.”