House committee leadership changed hands Wednesday as Republicans took control of the lower chamber in the 112th Congress.  One key switch that will likely impact food safety policy: Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) took the reins from Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA) as chair of the critical Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.

freshmanclass2011-featured.jpgIt’s no secret that Issa, who once told Rush Limbaugh he thought Obama was “one of the most corrupt presidents in modern times,” will be tough on the current administration.  Politico recently obtained a copy of the congressman’s broad list of priorities for investigative hearings: WikiLeaks, corruption in Afghanistan, and recalls at the Food and Drug Administration all make the list.

On Wednesday, the committee’s ranking member, Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-MD), told MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell he expects “an avalanche of subpoenas and all kinds of inquiries.”

“The food safety issue and the FDA are one of Congressman Issa’s top 6 priorities,” a spokesman from Cummings’ office told Food Safety News in an email response.  “Obviously Congressman Cummings, as Ranking Member, will set the tempo of the defense of all regulations that protect the American people.”

On MSNBC, Cummings said, “I want to be clear that we, on the other side, are holding this administration to a high standard ourselves, but what we want is fairness, not just a partial picture,” adding that he hopes the committee will hear from small businesses, not just large corporate interests.

Cummings also responded to Issa’s recent move to solicit input from over 100 trade associations and lobbyists on which regulations they would like to see the committee target.

“If you look at big business and you ask them what is it you don’t like about regulation, they’re going to probably send you a list of things that will allow them to make more money,” Cummings told MSNBC. “It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure this one out.”

“I don’t mind looking at the regulations, no problem with that,” added Cummings. “But, let’s be fair and let’s understand what those regulations are all about … for example something like food safety: we want Americans to be able to eat, to know that they’re eating food that is safe.  You can do away with the regulations.  Next thing you know, you’ve got all kinds of problems.”

It is not likely that the new food safety law, signed by the president Tuesday, would be on the list of regulations recommended by corporate lobbyists for repeal or questioning.  Major food industry groups, including the Grocery Manufacturers Association, the Food Marketing Institute, and the Chamber of Commerce, strongly supported the legislation.

When asked specifically if Cummings’ comments on MSNBC were an indication that the new chairman would hold a hearing on the new food safety law, an Issa spokesman said, simply: “Cummings is making stuff up.”

As Food Safety News reported in the fall, Issa has repeatedly stated his interest in overseeing food safety and reforming the fragmented bureaucracy,which includes more than a dozen agencies, that makes up the federal food safety system.

“A lot of what we’re going to do on my committee is go after things that are going to help people in their real lives, and that’s going to be a real priority,” said Issa in November. “Whether it’s food safety or government waste or government regulations that are slowing up people hiring back unemployed workers.  All of those issues are more important to put first for the American people.”

In February 2009, Issa had requested that the committee hold a hearing on the federal food safety system–a point that his office would hammer on again more than a year later when it became clear that the USDA and FDA had failed to communicate key information before conditions at two Iowa egg-production factories caused a nationwide Salmonella outbreak. 

In September 2010–in the wake of the massive egg recall–Issa again called for a hearing focused on reforming the food safety bureaucracy.  “Our Committee is uniquely positioned to look at the coordination and cooperation amongst departments and agencies,” wrote Issa. “We should not wait until hundreds of deaths occur in a food crisis before we address the serious fragmentations in federal oversight of our increasingly global food supply chain.”


Photo of the 2011 freshman class courtesy of the U.S. House of Representatives