Though Republicans gained control of the House of Representatives, Democrats maintained narrow control of the Senate in Tuesday’s midterm election, a reality that will likely not impact the fate of the pending FDA Food Safety Modernization Act slated for a cloture vote during the lame duck session in November.
At press time, Senate Democrats were poised to hold 49 seats, Republicans held 46, Independents 2, while 3 remained in play as election returns rolled in on the West Coast. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV), who scheduled the beleaguered food safety bill for a cloture vote before recess, kept his seat in what proved to be a very tumultuous campaign cycle.
With limited upheaval in the Senate, it is likely that the food safety bill will remain on track to pass in the upper chamber. Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA), chair of the Senate Health, Education, and Labor Committee and an avid supporter of the legislation, recently told reporters he believes he has over 90 yes votes for the bill.
“I remain optimistic that regardless of the outcome of the election, S. 510 will be taken up by the Senate when they return,” Caroline Smith DeWaal, food safety director at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, told Food Safety News, before the final returns were reported.
Whether the bill makes it through a conference committee and to the President’s desk before the new year is another question.
“I frankly don’t think it will make much difference either way,” said David Acheson, former associate commissioner of foods at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, “I see about a 5 percent chance [for the bill] and I suspect the election won’t change that much either way.”
The House passed its version of the food safety bill in July 2009. After a year of debate and compromise with small, sustainable agriculture advocates, the Senate bill contains some provisions aimed to reduce the regulatory burden on small farms and food facilities. The Senate version also does not contain registration fees to help pay for the $1.4 billion measure.
It remains to be seen whether Congressional leaders will dedicate the time necessary to resolve these important differences before the new congress comes to Washington in January.
Bill Marler, leading food lawyer and publisher of Food Safety News, thinks it’s “now or never” for the bill.
“If S. 510 does not pass in the lame duck session, get reconciled with HB 2749, and get signed by the President by years end, we will not see food safety legislation again this decade,” he said.
As Robert Guenther, senior vice president of public policy at United Fresh, a produce industry trade group, explained Tuesday, regardless of legislative progress, the Obama administration will likely continue as planned on regulatory priorities, presumably including food safety in the mix.
“As we start to take stock in what may take place next year, a quick read on tonight’s election result tells us that President Obama’s legislative agenda will be all but dead for the next two years,” wrote Guenther during the Untied Fresh’s live election blog update. “However, what we may see is an even more active regulatory agenda from the administration on policy issues that the President deems important.”
Correction: This article originally wrongly attributed Robert Guenther’s statement to Patrick Delaney of United Fresh.