Food safety and public health advocates are ramping up pressure on lawmakers to move stalled food safety legislation as the Senate only has a few weeks left to act before August recess.
The Make Our Food Safe coalition recently released polls targeting Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), with each statewide poll showing over 80 percent approval for the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act (S. 510). The coalition also ran ads in local newspapers featuring constituents who have battled serious foodborne illness.
Consumers Union, a key member of the coalition, released a poll early his week showing 80 percent of Americans want Congress to grant the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) mandatory recall authority, a provision that is part of both the House and Senate versions of the bill.
President Obama also weighed in last week, speaking out on food safety reform for the first time in over a year by issuing a statement in support of the Senate bill, noting that it “[a]ddresses longstanding challenges in the food safety and defense
system by promoting a prevention-oriented approach to the safety of our
The House passed its version with broad bipartisan support a year ago this month and by all accounts the Senate version–which is similar, but less comprehensive, and does not contain a fee provision–has broad bipartisan support. The Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee unanimously approved S. 510 in mid-November, and though the bill is a priority for the White House, it has not been brought up for a vote.
For months, the delay was due to the all consuming and extremely partisan health care reform debate, but now the bill faces three problems: time, BPA, and small farm concerns.
The first, and arguably most significant, challenge for S. 510 is, simply, time. With only a few weeks left in this work period, before August recess–and with a heated mid-term election cycle on the horizon–the Senate will wrangle with, among other priorities, a Supreme Court nomination, wall street reform, climate change, jobless benefits, and child nutrition reauthorization. There is simply not time to address all of these issues.
In addition to finding time to bring S. 510 to the floor for a vote, there would need to be time for a conference committee to reconcile differences between the House and Senate versions and gain approval from both chambers.
Though the House and Senate versions are similar, the differences are significant enough to warrant serious, and potentially time-consuming, debate. For example, the House version contains a flat $500 facility registration fee, regardless of size or income, to help pay for the bill, and the Senate version does not contain any fees.
According to Ferd Hoefner, the director of policy for the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, the fees are a “make or break issue” for small farmers. Hoefner sees limited time to reconcile the bills.
“Even if they pass the bill next week, I don’t see how they finish,” said Hoefner in an interview. “I don’t know that there is enough time to have a real conference.”
The second problem is Senator Dianne Feinstein’s (D-CA) effort to attach a ban on bisphenol-A (BPA) in food packaging to the bill. Feinstein, and dozens of consumer and health groups, see BPA as a critical public health issue, as the chemical has been linked to a slew of health problems, ranging from breast cancer to heart disease to neurological deficiencies. The FDA announced it has “some concern” about the chemical in January, but continues to review the growing body of scientific research on the issue.
As Food Safety News previously reported, major industry groups, including the Grocery Manufacturers of America (GMA), who currently support S. 510, have pledged to oppose the bill if a BPA ban is part of the final package. A ban would also draw new enemies to S. 510, like plastics and chemical interest groups.
Consumer and public health groups who support both the food safety bill and banning the industrial chemical from food containers, however, remain confident that a compromise will be reached.
The Environmental Working Group, for example, supports both efforts, and hopes the conflict can be resolved. “The food and chemical industries should not be threatening to defeat the food safety bill, which will allow vital advancements in food safety,” said Leeann Brown, a spokeswoman for the group, who added that BPA is at the top of the organization’s list of chemicals of concern.
Consumers Union is in the same boat, they see improving the food safety system and banning BPA from food containers as two important public health priorities and hope Senators will find compromise.
Senate staff express confidence that the issue will be ironed out. “We are still confident what we can get this bill to the floor this work period,” said Max Gleischman, a spokesman for Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-IL), the primary sponsor of the legislation.
Durbin and other key senators are working with Feinstein to come to a resolution. It is unclear whether lawmakers have been given a timeline for when an agreement must be reached.
“A little leadership by the leaders would resolve the problem,” says a source familiar with the process. “Until someone [sets a deadline] both sides will continue to push to get as much as they can. Feinstein has been around a long time. She is a tough negotiator and is good at getting some action on a tough issue.”
Small farm concerns
Though the small and sustainable agriculture community has won significant changes to the Senate bill, in an effort to lessen the impact on small farms, there is one provision that remains a problem: the Tester-Hagan amendment. The amendment, originally proposed by Jon Tester (D-MT), which now has Kay Hagan’s (D-NC) full support, exempts facilities with under $500,000 gross sales from preventative control plan requirements, and traceback and recordkeeping provisions.
The measure has broad support in the small and sustainable agriculture community, but is at odds with food safety advocates and food industry groups who take issue with blanket exemptions.
Staff continue to work on language that may be palatable for both sides, but no solid compromise has been reached. It is still unclear whether a version of the Tester-Hagan amendment might be included in the manager’s package.
“There’s been lots and lots of new language,” said Hoefner. “I don’t have a sense of how close they are to a resolution, but we’re creeping closer.”
“It certainly seems like we’re in the ‘now or never’ session,” said Hoefner, noting that if the Senate does not act in the 111th Congress, the whole process starts over.