CQ: House Passes Sweeping Food Safety Bill

Jul 31, 2009
In The News

On its second try, the House passed a sweeping food safety bill that would create new traceability requirements for the food supply chain and strengthen facility inspections.

The bill (HR 2749) passed 283‑142 on Thursday, one day after it fell a handful of votes short of the two-thirds needed to pass under suspension of the rules, an expedited procedure that limits debate and bars amendments.

Within hours of the bill’s failure under suspension, 280-150, the Rules Committee approved a closed rule for the bill that allowed it to return to the floor Thursday so it could pass by simple majority.

“As a mother and grandmother, I am very excited about the food safety that will pass in this bill,” Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said shortly before the vote. “It is so long overdue, and now we have a president who will sign the bill. And it will pass with bipartisan support.”

The legislation follows a string of high-profile recalls in recent years of tainted food products, including beef, spinach, tomatoes and peanut butter. The bill’s sponsor, Energy and Commerce member John D. Dingell, D-Mich., said 76 million people in the United States become sick from foodborne illnesses annually and about 5,000 die.

Jurisdiction Fight

Agriculture Committee members’ complaints that the measure should have been referred to their panel were partly behind the bill’s failure July 29. Committee Democrats were placated by last-minute concessions addressing farm-state concerns, but the panel’s Republicans still withheld their support.

Agriculture Chairman Collin C. Peterson, D-Minn., won changes in the bill that added exemptions from most of the bill’s provisions for farms, livestock, poultry and feed grain, all of which will continue to be regulated by the Agriculture Department. Peterson had been concerned about provisions that he said would give the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) too large a role in regulating farm activities involving animals.

But the committee’s Republicans said these changes did not go far enough and would drive up consumers’ food costs and force businesses overseas. They renewed calls for a referral to the Agriculture Committee.

“This bill would go too far in trying to produce food from a bureaucrat’s chair in Washington,” complained Agriculture’s ranking Republican, Frank D. Lucas of Oklahoma.

Rules Chairwoman Louise M. Slaughter, D-N.Y., expressed disappointment that some farm groups continued to oppose the bill even after winning concessions. She cited their opposition as the cause of the bill’s initial defeat.

Dingell said he negotiated in good faith with Peterson and won the chairman’s consent for changes to the bill. He said, for example, that farms selling directly to customers will be exempt from provisions in the bill.

Other Republicans also criticized the process of bringing the bill to the floor under suspension, which did not give them a chance to amend the measure. During debate Thursday, Republicans complained that bringing the bill back under a closed rule also denied them the opportunity to offer amendments.

“This bill reminds me of the tactics of the former Soviet Union — and we know how successful that was,” said North Carolina Republican Virginia Foxx.

Recalls and Quarantines

The bill would require the FDA to create a system for tracing food along the food chain so that recalls can be implemented more quickly.

It also would allow the FDA to impose civil and criminal penalties and to implement mandatory food quarantines, both for the first time. Food quarantines are currently voluntary.

A quarantine could be ordered in a specific geographic region only if there is “credible evidence or information that an article of food presents a threat of serious adverse health consequences or death to humans or animals.”

The FDA could prohibit or restrict the movement of contaminated food or vehicles that are being used to transport such food within the geographic area.

Additionally, the bill would increase the frequency of inspections at certain food facilities, mandating inspections ranging from every six months to every five years, depending on the level of risk at the facility.

The measure would help pay for this stepped-up inspection regime by requiring food facilities that serve U.S. customers to register with the FDA and pay a registration fee. Farms, grocery stores and restaurants would be exempt from these requirements. Fees would be set at $500 yearly per facility, adjusted for inflation. Fees would be capped at $175,000 annually for a company owning multiple facilities.

Dingell, the former Energy and Commerce chairman, said the bill passed Thursday was the fruit of decades of effort to address food safety.

“It is old enough to vote,” Dingell said about the bill. “It is over 21 years old.”

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