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House passes food safety bill

by Joan Murphy | July 30, 2009
WASHINGTON -- By a 283-to-142 vote, the House of Representatives passed the Food Safety Enhancement Act of 2009 but only after House Agriculture Committee Republicans tried to send the bill back to committee to make it more farm-friendly.

HR 2749 would require the Food & Drug Administrtation to set strong performance standards, create a food traceback system, inspect facilities more frequently and set new controls for imported foods. FDA would add new authority to access records, levy penalties and collect a dedicated source of funding for food safety.

"There's nothing [in] this bill that's overly burdensome for farmers -- small or big," said Rep. John Dingell (D- MI), who led the debate in support of the bill on the House floor Thursday night, July 30.

But House Agriculture Committee Republicans, angry that the bill was not referred to their committee, tried to send the bill back to committee with instructions to use some of the facility registration fees to create an indemnification fund to help food producers wrongly implicated in outbreaks.

Other members argued that farm-friendly changes were already made to the bill during delicate negotiations, and that raiding the facility registration fees would damage the bill. The motion failed by a 186-240 vote, assuring final passage of the bill.

"The bill has come light years from where it originated," said Kathy Means, vice president of government affairs and public relations at the Produce Marketing Association. Ms. Means praised lawmakers for listening to the industry and reducing registration fees and changing the traceability provisions. "We would bring real world practicalities and they would listen," she told The Produce News.

"United Fresh is gratified by the House passage of this landmark food safety legislation, which contains several important provisions designed to improve our nation's food safety and help bolster consumer confidence in the food supply," Tom Stenzel, president and chief executive officer of United Fresh Produce Association, said in a statement.

But the job isn't over yet, and the Senate has yet to act on its food safety bill. Ms. Means said that the quarantine provision, which would allow FDA to stop movement of a commodity involved in a health scare, needs more safeguards to protect industry.

Some of the issues on the top shelf for United Fresh are eliminating the bill's finish product testing requirements, which the association argues do not promote food safety, adding provisions to expedite shipping for importers with good compliance records and strengthening outbreak investigations.

On the same day the landmark bill passed the House, FDA released long- awaited commodity guidelines for tomatoes, melons and leafy greens, which will spell out food safety guidelines for the entire supply chain, from production to harvesting to processing to distribution and user handling at retail or foodservice.

"Our industry has worked hard since 2004 to develop commodity-specific guidance documents in each of these areas and now strongly supports FDA taking these efforts to a new level," said Mr. Stenzel.

The new commodity-specific guidelines are expected to serve as a framework for mandatory, commodity-specific produce standards, which will come two years after Congress passes the food safety bill, according to Ms. Means. PMA will be combing through the three documents to see how they differ from the industry-drafted versions and will comment on the guidelines, she said.