As the new chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee, Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, has publicly indicated that the committee will likely take up a food safety bill this fall and consumer advocates remain hopeful that a bill is possible before Christmas.

Harkin took chairmanship of the HELP committee when it became open after the death of Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., giving up his position as chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee.  After Harkin assumed the new role last week he told reporters he hoped to have a food safety bill completed this fall, reiterating statements he made at a food safety forum in Iowa at the end of August (see Attention Drawn to Food Safety in Iowa).

The Senate is considering legislation similar to the food safety bill that overwhelmingly passed the House in July. The House bill would strengthen the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s authority, mandate inspections for high-risk food facilities, and collect registration fees from food firms to increase the agency’s budget. There has been much speculation about the timing of the Senate bill (see Comparing H.R. 2749 and S. 510).

“Our sense is that Sen. Harkin has made a very strong public commitment to moving this bill this year,” said Erik Olson, director of Food and Consumer Product Safety for the Pew Health Group. “He has repeatedly said the food safety system is broken and needs to be fixed. We believe he will use the power of the gavel to do so.”


Olson believes strong bipartisan support in the Senate and widespread public support for stronger food safety laws could help the bill succeed in the Senate this fall. 

“I think there’s a 75 percent chance it passes,” Stuart Pape, managing partner at Patton Boggs, a law firm that works with clients on understanding FDA regulation, told audience at the National Food Policy Conference last week.

Scott Faber, Vice President for the Grocery Manufacturers Association, a key player in food safety politics in Washington, is less optimistic. In a Q&A exchange at the food policy conference, Faber predicted health care would dominate the Senate schedule and without a “real sense of urgency” he thinks the bill’s chances for success this year are slim.

Faber also noted that if the Senate pushes food safety back to spring, it will become more politically difficult to garner the necessary votes with the 2010 election around the corner.

Pape, however, sees the food safety bill as something the Senate could take up when health care is not occupying time on the floor, noting that the legislation would be a good accomplishment to take into the election cycle.

Chairman Harkin’s role

“Having Harkin come in is a silver lining on an otherwise dark cloud,” said David Plunkett, a senior food safety lawyer at the Center for Science in the Public Interest. While emphasizing that Kennedy’s death was very tragic, Plunkett expressed confidence in Harkin’s ability to make food safety legislation happen.

“He brings a great deal of balance. He’s the right person to bridge the issues that have developed between sustainable agriculture and consumer advocates,” added Plunkett, referring to the growing opposition among small and organic farmers and sustainable agriculture advocates weary of burdensome regulations and fees.

“He’s got a heart for the issues, he’s got the experience, he’s also well thought of in the Senate,” said Plunkett, noting that Harkin has good relationships with Senators on both sides of the aisle.