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Food-safety bill sails through House subcommittee

by Joan Murphy | June 10, 2009
WASHINGTON -- New legislation that would give the Food & Drug Administration authority to write federal produce-safety standards and set up sweeping traceability regulations cleared its first hurdle when a subcommittee approved the bill on June 10.

The House Energy & Commerce Health Subcommittee approved the Food Safety Enhancement Act (H.R. 2749), a bill that is likely to "have a lot of impact on the produce industry," Robert Guenther of the United Fresh Produce Association told The Produce News at the Capitol Hill hearing.

The bill would direct the FDA to set science-based standards for growing, harvesting, processing, packing, sorting, transporting and holding for certain high-risk raw agricultural commodities. In the latest version of the bill approved by the subcommittee, the FDA would have to take into account the effect these regulations could have on small farms, organic production methods, wildlife habitat and watershed-protection efforts.

Most of the produce industry is already operating under federal, state or industry standards, so this bill would "allow FDA to bless these standards," said Mr. Guenther. "Progress is being made on the bill."

United Fresh hopes to convince lawmakers to make more produce industry- friendly changes to the bill before the full committee considers it on June 15. He said that he would like the traceability language to be more flexible to take into account initiatives already underway by industry; that the new produce regulations should be commodity-specific; and that imported foods should meet the same food-safety standards as domestic foods.

The subcommittee already made one change that pleased the food industry: the bill halved the annual facility registration fee to $500 from $1,000. Facilities would have to register annually with the FDA and pay the new fees to pick up the cost of the new food-safety programs. But Mr. Guenther said that the new fees might still be costly for produce businesses.

"I have been concerned that the level of fees in the early drafts would have squeezed both food producers and consumers," said Rep. Joe Barton (R-TX), the ranking member of the committee, who praised Democrats for agreeing to smaller fees.

But other issues remain on the table, Republican lawmakers said at the three- hour markup. The bill would allow the FDA to impose civil penalties up to $500,000 with no per-violation cap on a food company for an unintentional violation that causes no harm, said Rep. Barton, who added that these fines could "easily run in the millions or tens of millions of dollars."

The bill also would require the FDA to inspect high-risk facilities every six to 18 months, low-risk facilities every 18 months to three years, and warehouses every three to four years.

"Requiring the FDA to inspect low-risk facilities at that frequency will not improve food safety," said Rep. Barton, who expressed concern that the new inspection schedule would drain FDA resources.

"Over the next week, I want to make this bill even better, and I'm confident that we can come to agreement on other key issues," said House Energy & Commerce Committee Chairman Henry Waxman (D-CA). "There is already a lot to be proud of in this bill and in the agreements that we've reached with committee Republicans."