Food safety legislation that had picked up steam in the wake of a massive egg recall has hit a major snag.  On the Senate floor Thursday, Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) said Sen. Tom Coburn’s (R-OK) objection to the bill’s price tag meant the Senate was unlikely to take up the measure before the contentious midterm election season.

“It’s just a shame we’re not going to be able to get this done before we go home…before the elections. What a sad thing for our country,” said Reid.

The comments set off a wave of doubt among consumer, industry, and public health advocacy groups who have been working diligently on the legislation, which would boost authority and funding for the beleaguered U.S. Food and Drug Administration. The House passed its version of the bill in July 2009.

Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA), chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, which unanimously approved the legislation in mid-November, told reporters yesterday he was frustrated with the hold up, especially in light of the momentum that had been building for the bill.

“I really thought with this whole egg recall hitting everything all over the country right before [the Senate] came back, I thought that would give us the impetus we need,” said Harkin. “And I think it did. I think that’s why everybody’s ready to move on it, except for Mr. Coburn.”

“If I could get it on the floor I bet I could get 90–more than 90 votes–maybe 92, 93 votes,” he said, adding that he hadn’t received a “definitive no” from Coburn and meant to discuss the matter with him.

“He did not object to our bill coming out of committee,” said Harkin, noting that Coburn serves alongside him on the HELP committee. Coburn insists Democrats must find a way to offset the cost of the bill, released a detailed memo yesterday outlining a number of his concerns.

John Hart, a spokesman for Sen. Coburn, told Food Safety News Thursday that Coburn did raise objections with the bill sponsors in committee and had been ‘hopeful that they’d be resolved.”

“He was unable to attend markup that morning and it passed by voice vote,” explained Hart in an email. “He would not have voted for it, and he let them know that he had concerns about the bill moving forward. No objections we’ve mentioned in past 48 hours were not suggested to the bill’s sponsors months ago.”  

Coburn takes issue with the bill’s cost, $1.4 billion over five years, and with several major elements of the bill including: performance standards granting “extremely broad” authority to the agency, traceability requirements, mandatory recall authority, and fees. The senator also expressed concerns with commodity-specific produce safety standards.
Hart said that striking a deal to resolve the hold up would be “difficult because Reid is in blame mode and refuses to even discuss paying for the bill.”

“Reid is also in a hurry to go home to campaign and doesn’t want to be bothered with a floor debate,” added Hart. “He could bring this bill up whenever he wanted and would have a good chance of winning a cloture vote. This is about his political safety, not the safety of the American people.”

A Reid spokesperson told Meatingplace that the senator is working on a unanimous consent agreement so that the bill can be brought to a vote. Democrats would need to file cloture, a process that can take several days. “We will still try to get an agreement to do this before we leave [for elections],” Regan Lachapelle, Reid’s communications director, told Meatingplace yesterday afternoon.

Harkin spokeswoman Justine Sessions couldn’t confirm whether Harkin had discussed the disagreement with Coburn, but said the unilateral delay was “denying American families the protections they deserve.” “Chairman Harkin will continue to work with his colleagues on both sides of the aisle to pass this bill before the end of the year,” she said.

Groups backing the bill, meanwhile, sent a letter to both Reid and Senate and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) asking that the bill be scheduled for a floor vote “at the soonest possible date.”

“Strong food-safety legislation will reduce the risk of contamination and thereby better protect public health and safety, raise the bar for the food industry, and deter bad actors,” read the letter, which was signed by two dozen groups, including Consumers Union, the Pew Charitable Trusts and the Grocery Manufacturers Association.

“I am deeply troubled that any Senator would use archaic Senate rules to stand in the way of safer food,” said Caroline Smith DeWaal, food safety director at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, on of the key advocacy groups backing the bill. “The legislation has strong support both inside Congress, and among the stakeholders and the general public.”

David Acheson, former associate commissioner for foods at FDA, who now works as an industry consultant, told Food Safety News he think there is a slim chance that Reid will pass it through before the election.

“Coburn has really thrown a wrench in this,” he says.

Overall, Acheson believes there’s about a fifty-fifty chance that Congress will produce a bill before the end of the year.