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New draft food-safety bill to be marked up in House committee this month

by Joan Murphy | May 31, 2009
WASHINGTON  U.S. Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA) circulated a draft food- safety bill May 26 that would levy new fees on all facilities registered with the Food & Drug Administration to pay for more frequent inspections and set new produce safety standards.

After months of speculation about food-safety legislation, a powerful House committee is scheduled to hold its first hearing on the bill June 3.

"This is the driver in the House for food-safety legislation," said Robert Guenther, senior vice president for public policy at the United Fresh Produce Association, who added that a subcommittee plans to mark up the bill this month, greasing the wheels for full House action on food-safety legislation.

The 116-page bill, based on the food provisions of the Food & Drug Administration Globalization Act of 2009 (H.R. 759), would require all food facilities  domestic and foreign  to register with the FDA every year and pay a $1,000 fee to cover the cost of food safety-related activities.

There's certainly a lot we agree with: preventative controls and risk-based, science-based activities, said Kathy Means, vice president of government relations and public affairs for the Produce Marketing Association. But the public health function of conducting inspections should not be paid for from user fees, she said.

This will raise the price for fruits and vegetables if companies have to pay $1,000 for each registered facility, she added. This is not a time in this economy for increasing prices. Lets not put this burden on the back of the consumer.

Like other bills on Capitol Hill, the draft bill would require companies to have food-safety plans, direct the FDA to promulgate produce-safety regulations and traceability rules, and require high-risk firms to be inspected at least once every 18 months.

The traceability provisions in the new draft bill may clash with the industrys own traceability effort, warned Mr. Guenther. It doesnt allow for current traceability systems already in place.

The FDA would set regulations for the safe growing, harvesting, packing, sorting, transportation and holding of raw agricultural commodities that may entail water quality, manure use, animal control and other factors, according to the new draft bill. The U.S. Department of Agriculture or state agriculture agencies could enforce the new rules.

When writing produce-safety rules, the FDA should make sure they are based on risk and science, and not a rule that says if 50 feet from a cow is good, a mile from a cow is better, said Ms. Means.

Mr. Guenther said that Rep. Waxmans bill would give the FDA a new country-of-origin program for ingredients, and he added, we dont need two new COOL laws in this country.

He said that there is also concern about a new provision that would allow the FDA to quarantine unsafe foods from a certain geographic area in the United States if the agency has credible evidence or information of a threat.

Under the draft bill, the FDA may require foods to be certified as meeting all U.S. food-safety requirements by a foreign government or by certain qualified third parties. The agency may develop a fast-track import clearance process for firms meeting certain guidelines.

On enforcement, the bill would give the FDA new authority to issue mandatory recalls and strengthen criminal penalties as well as handing it new subpoena authority and establishing civil monetary penalties that the FDA may impose on food facilities that fail to comply with safety requirements.

The current state of our food-safety system is dangerous not just for the American public but also for the food industry itself, said Rep. Waxman, chairman of the House Energy & Commerce Committee. This bill recognizes that the hallmark of strong food-safety legislation must be a shared responsibility for food-safety oversight between the FDA and industry.