The pending Senate food safety bill inched forward yesterday as key lawmakers released a bipartisan, compromise agreement, a step which should make it easier to bring the bill to the floor for a vote after recess.

us-capitol-featured.jpgNotably absent from the 225-page managers package are two hot button amendments: a bisphenol-A (BPA) ban championed by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and a provision to ease the regulatory burden on small farmers authored by Sen. Jon Tester (D-MT) and co-sponsored by Sen. Kay Hagan (D-NC).

The updated bill also reduces the required inspection frequency as part of an effort to bring down the Congressional Budget Office cost estimate for the legislation. Though food safety advocates inside the beltway were encouraged by the bipartisan agreement, several expressed serious concerns about the reduced inspection frequency.

“We are extremely disappointed that the Senate, in order to reduce the estimated cost of the legislation, reduced the frequency of FDA inspections of food processing facilities,” said Consumer Federation of America. “Regular and frequent inspection is a basic part of prevention.”

Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee Chairman Tom Harkin (D-IA), Ranking Member Mike Enzi (R-WY), authors of The FDA Food Safety Modernization Act (S. 510) Dick Durbin (D-IL) and Judd Gregg (R-NH,) and lead cosponsors Chris Dodd (D-CT) and Richard Burr (R-NC)–who negotiated the manager’s package–lauded the landmark agreement.

“Any 100-year-old plus structure–like our nation’s food safety system–needs improvements,” said the lawmakers in a joint statement.  “With this announcement today, we aim to not just patch and mend our fragmented food safety system, we hope to reinforce the infrastructure, close the gaps, and create a systematic, risk-based and balanced approach to food safety in the United States.”

Though the agreement is a critical step, significant hurdles remain. The Congressional Budget Office estimates the bill will increase spending by about $1.4 billion between 2011 and 2015, a tough sell considering the current fiscal landscape and looming midterm elections.

Feinstein also said yesterday that though she did not succeed in adding language to ban BPA in food packaging, she plans to introduce an amendment on the floor to ban the chemical from being used in baby bottles, sippy cups, baby food, and infant formula containers.

“BPA is linked to problems with brain and reproductive development in fetuses, infants, and children. It is critical we act now to protect the most vulnerable, our infants and toddlers, from this harmful chemical,” Feinstein said yesterday in a statement.

As Food Safety News reported last month, most insiders believe disagreements over BPA and the reducing the impact on small farmers will ultimately be resolved.

“I am pleased that one of the few pieces of bi-partisan legislation is moving forward,” said Bill Marler, food safety attorney, advocate, and publisher of Food Safety News. “When I meet with President Obama next week when he is in Seattle, I will urge him to put his full weight behind it. I look forward to watching him sign this landmark food safety legislation.”

The group of lawmakers who released the agreement said they intend to bring the bill to the floor “as soon as possible.”

As Matthew Madia at OMB Watch noted yesterday, this is not the first time senators have pulled the “as soon as possible” card.

“Of course, we’ve heard that before, with no results,” writes Madia. “If the Senate gets its act together and passes food safety reform by the end of the year, it will be a small miracle.”

Carol Tucker-Foreman of the Consumer Federation of America’s Food Policy Institute remains optimistic about the bill’s chances when the Senate returns from recess in early September.

“It’s very important that [the Senate] got this bipartisan agreement out of committee when there is not a lot of bipartisanship happening,” said Tucker-Foreman. “I still think the chances are very good,” she added, noting that industry and consumer groups remain highly engaged.

According to Chairman Harkin, the highlights of the manager’s amendment include:

Hazard analysis and preventive controls: Requires facilities that manufacture, process, pack, or hold food to have in place risk-based preventive control plans to address identified hazards and prevent adulteration, and gives FDA access to these plans and relevant documentation. These requirements do not apply to restaurants or most farms.
Imports: Requires importers to verify the safety of foreign suppliers and imported food.  Allows FDA to require 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 U.S. inspectors.  Creates a voluntary qualified importer program in which importers with a certification of safety for their foreign supplier can pay a user-free for expedited entry into the U.S.
Inspection: Gives FDA additional resources to hire new inspectors and requires FDA to inspect food facilities more frequently.
Mandatory Recall Authority: Gives FDA the authority to order a mandatory recall of a food product if the food will cause serious adverse health consequences or death and a company has failed to voluntarily recall the product upon FDA’s request.
Regulatory Balance:  Achieves new requirements without being excessively burdensome.  The legislation provides training for facilities to come into compliance with new safety requirements and includes special accommodations for small businesses and farms.  It does not interfere with current organic farming practices and does not change the current definition of farm under the 2002 Bioterrorism Act.  Any farm that is not currently required to register with FDA will not be required to do so under this legislation.
Surveillance:  Enhances surveillance systems to detect foodborne illnesses.
Traceback: Requires FDA to establish a pilot project to test and evaluate new methods for rapidly tracking foods in the event of a foodborne illness outbreak.
Increased FDA Resources: Increases funding for FDA’s food safety activities through increased appropriations and targeted fees for food facility reinspection, food recalls, and the voluntary qualified importer program.