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Procedural snafu puts food-safety reform in jeopardy after Senate overwhelmingly passes bill

by Joan Murphy | November 30, 2010
WASHINGTON -- Just a day after the Senate passed food-safety reform, the bill appears in jeopardy because of a procedural snafu that may block the House from taking it up.

Yesterday, the Senate approved S. 510, the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act, by a 73 to 25 vote, and food-safety reform advocates had hopes the House would approved the Senate version as early as today, hastening final approval of the bill. The House had been waiting for the Senate to act since it approved its version of food-safety reform in July 2009.

But last night, the story began to change.

The House Ways & Means Committee raised concerns that revenue-raising provisions, including new reinspection and export certification fees, in S. 510 violated the rules requiring tax provisions to originate in the House. House leaders plan to meet on the issue later tonight, but it could spell the end of food-safety reform since Congress is likely to wrap up its lame duck session in the next few weeks.

"I think the prognosis for food-safety reform is not very good," said Cathy Enright, vice president of federal government affairs at Western Growers Association.

The produce industry has its own beef with the bill.

It may be better to start over next year, Ms. Enright said, after S. 510 was passed with an amendment that allows small producers to be exempt from federal food-safety requirements.

“You can't have a federal system and allow a mosaic of a food-safety system,” Ms. Enright argued. “It sends a terrible message to consumers and it sends a terrible message to our trading partners.”

United Fresh Produce Association, Western Growers Association and the Produce Marketing Association have been urging Congress to work out differences between the two bills in a conference committee after the Senate agreed to adopt the Tester-Hagan amendment in the final bill yesterday.

The small producer exemption will undermine the credibility of a federal food-safety system, said Robert Guenther of the United Fresh Produce Association, who said that it would introduce complexity into an already complex system. For example, buyers, including schools, may shy away from buying locally grown produce if they are not covered under federal food- safety rules.

Even if Congress can resolve the technical problems with the bill, lawmakers will need to send it back to the Senate for approval.

Since S. 510 passed yesterday, Senate Republicans have said they would block legislation from being taken up on the Senate floor unless the Senate acts on tax cuts and spending bills.