Yes, the Food Safety Bill is now law. But why did it take a decade of gutaches to get it?

A few weeks ago, Caroline Smith DeWaal was attending an international conference in Kenya, trying to explain American congressional politics to her European friends.

As food safety director for the nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest, Smith DeWaal had spent more than a decade advocating an overhaul of U.S. food safety laws.  So, she was asked, how’s it going?

Well, she said, the bill passed the House by more than two-to-one, and the Senate by three-to-one.  It is supported by consumer groups, major food processors, corporate growers and most other interest groups.  There is little organized opposition.  And President Obama is anxious to sign it.

Wow, her friends said.  You’ve done it.

Nope, she said.  The bill is in danger of dying in the last days of Congress.

Huh?  Wait a second!  If everybody wants it, what’s the problem?

Few Americans understand their own politics, but Europeans are downright baffled.  Most of them live under parliamentary systems, where the party in power decides what to do, and simply does it; if people don’t like it, they go out to the polls and elect another government.

To them, the American system is nuts.  And Smith DeWaal couldn’t argue with them.  So it was that, in mid-December, she was back on Capitol Hill, trekking across freshly fallen snow, trying desperately to resuscitate a dying bill.

Her crusade dates back to the 1990s, when Americans were startled by outbreaks of toxic E coli O157:H7 traced to Jack in the Box fast food and supermarket ground beef.

Food poisoning dates at least to the Stone Age, but this was different.  Genetic technology enabled health authorities to link sick people directly to specific products, leading to media coverage, costly lawsuits and increasing calls to update the nation’s food safety laws.

Democrats responded by proposing an overhaul of the Food and Drug Administration, providing more authority to inspect farms and processing plants and to order recalls of tainted food. 

The 2000 election brought a Republican regime that was in no mood to regulate anything except airline passengers.   So, while Democrats kept reintroducing their food safety bills, nothing moved.  “I think there was one hearing on school lunches,” Smith-DeWaal recalls.

In 2006 the nation witnessed another wave of food poisonings–not hamburger, but spinach, lettuce, sprouts, even peanut butter.  Congress started paying attention.

Still, nothing advanced until 2009, when Barack Obama moved into the White House in the midst of a yet another nationwide outbreak.  This time it was Salmonella that sickened more than 700 people in 46 states, killed at least nine, and was eventually traced to peanut paste used in thousands of products ranging from peanut butter to breakfast cereal.

A few weeks later, scores more were sickened by E. coli in uncooked Nestle cookie dough.

Those notorious outbreaks provided Democrats with the political oomph they needed to pass  HB 2749, which expanded the FDA’s authority.  Backers hoped for quick action on the Senate side, but it was not to be.  Senate rules reflect deep-seated American suspicions of big government and bend over backward to protect minority views.  And conservative Republicans, especially Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn, had problems with the bill.

The delay may have been partly rooted in political philosophy.  The libertarian argument says government doesn’t know how to prevent foodborne illness; it will just spend a lot of tax dollars and make life miserable for businesspeople.

But most of the arguments Smith DeWaal encountered were not philosophical.  “There was a core group of members interested in the ideas,” she recalls.  “But most of them wanted to know ‘how this will affect people in my state.’ “

And that’s hard to answer.  In any given year, people in every state and congressional district will contract Salmonella or other foodborne pathogens.  But few of them will lobby their congressman for tougher regulation, much less write checks or organize the fundraising events that get legislators’ attention.

“The problem goes back to members who are trying to represent narrow constituencies rather than the broad public interest,” she says.

A few senators, however, kept working on food safety.  Sen. Richard Durbin, the Illinois Democrat, carried a tattered letter from Nancy Donley whose 6-year-old son Alex had died of E. coli poisoning.  And Sen. John Tester, a freshman Democrat from Montana, was listening to small farmers who feared that tougher federal regulation would make it tougher and more costly to get their produce to market.

When Republicans swept the November elections, backers wondered if food safety was dead for another decade.  Democrats still controlled the House for a few weeks, but they were focused on other, higher-profile legislation–tax cuts, gays in the military, compensation for 9-11 emergency responders and more.  Food safety did not appear to be on a front burner.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, however, was frequently reminded of Linda Rivera, the 58-year-old mother from his hometown who had been horribly stricken with E. coli poisoning from cookie dough.

Two weeks after the election, the Senate approved the Tester amendment, exempting small farms from the new regulations.  A week later, they passed S. 510 by a vote of three-to-one.

But it wasn’t over yet.  Due to a drafting snafu, the Senate bill contained language imposing fees for food safety inspections–language the House bill did not contain.  The bill required another House vote, and members were focused on forging some agreement on a massive spending bill to avoid a threatened government shutdown.  Republicans were looking for any way to prevent Democrats from passing last-minute legislation.  And food safety did not appear to be on anybody’s radar screen.

By Dec. 17, advocates were almost ready to give up and head home for the holidays.   Roaming the House offices, they had to make their way past stacks of office furniture as defeated Democrats made way for their GOP successors.  Bill Marler, the food safety lawyer and publisher of this site, spent the week on Capitol Hill, searching for a pulse, and finding little.  Sitting in a congressional waiting room, he watched the TV monitor broadcast from the House floor as a Texas congressman nattered endlessly about something seemingly insignificant.

“Nobody seems to give a damn,” he grumbled. “And here’s a bill that has support from Republicans and Democrats, from processors, farmers … What’s wrong with this picture?”

Marler flew home to Seattle the next day.

That’s when the legislative dam broke.  The Senate ratified the new arms treaty with the Russians.  Members voted to reimburse thousands of 9-11 workers.

On Sunday, Dec. 20, Harry Reid suddenly brought S. 510 back to the Senate floor, where it passed quietly, unanimously, with no objection, not even from Coburn.

On Tuesday, the House followed suit.  And the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act was sent over to President Obama for signing. 

What made the difference?  Smith deWaal credits persistence from a few select members – Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Connecticut, in the House, and Durbin in the Senate.  Some speculate that Obama’s controversi
al tax deal, extending the B
ush era tax cuts for wealthy Americans, came with some kind of agreement that Republicans would not stand in the way of selected Democratic bills, including food safety.

But watching the process, one can only conclude that it’s a hopelessly complicated chemistry involving 535 odd personalities, none of whom really understands how the place works.  Or, far more frequently, why it usually doesn’t.