USA Today, Coburn weigh in on food safety debate; Coburn to offer alternative bill:

USA Today, one of America’s most widely circulated newspapers, featured opposing sides of the debate over pending food safety legislation Tuesday.  Citing a slew of recent high-profile outbreaks, recent USA Today food safety exposes, and foodborne illness stats, the paper’s editorial staff penned an Op-Ed in support of the bill, which would be the first major overhaul of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s food regulatory system in over seven decades.

In the same edition, Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK), who last week derailed the debate over the bill, made his case against the legislation in a guest Op-Ed, arguing for a plan that instead “leverages the free market.”

“America has the safest food supply in the world, and it has never been safer.  The rates of food-borne illness have been declining for more than a decade,” wrote Coburn.  “Still, tragic outbreaks do occur and government can take common-sense steps to make our food supply even safer.”

Coburn argues that the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act, S.510, which would boost the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s inspection mandate, give it mandatory recall authority, and require food facilities to put food safety plans in place, is an overreaction to recent outbreaks and will “impose new and invasive regulations” as well as expand “duplicative” bureaucracy.

“For the past 100 years, the free market, not the government, has been the primary driver of innovation and improved safety,” adds Coburn.  “Consumer choice is a far more effective accountability mechanism than government bureaucracies.”

The USA Today editorial concedes that in some cases regulators have not used the authority they already have, but in other instances they lack necessary authority.

“When internal testing at one peanut plant found salmonella, for example, the owners kept testing until the findings were negative, then shipped the product.  The government had to use a bioterrorism statute to force the company to divulge the positive tests,” the article explains, referring to the massive 2009 Peanut Corporation of America peanut butter recall and outbreak that sickened 700 and killed 9.

“The bill, scheduled for a vote after Thanksgiving, is so unobtrusive and common-sensical that it even has support from the staunchly anti-regulatory U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the Grocery Manufacturers Association and cereal maker General Mills,” continues USA Today.

During the debate over the legislation, which is scheduled to begin the evening of Nov. 29, Sen. Coburn plans to offer an alternative bill in addition to a contentious and unrelated amendment that would ban legislative earmarks for fiscal years 2011, 2012, and 2013.

Coburn’s measure, much more limited in scale, would require FDA and USDA to establish a plan on information sharing and allow a greater role for private third-party auditors to “lessen the regulatory load for the agency.”

Whereas S. 510 would give the FDA increased access to food safety records in cases of adulteration, Coburn’s proposal would allow FDA access to records only in a declared public health emergency.