A bill that would give the Food and Drug Administration new authority to regulate imported and domestic food chains is a critical piece of unfinished business before the lame-duck 111th Congress. Senators were to take up consideration of the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act this week, but a late amendment could turn industry’s strong support into stiff opposition.
The FDA Food Safety Modernization Act would give the agency the authority to recall contaminated food, something it’s never had before, and the ability to regulate farms and processing facilities where products can be contaminated. The authority also extends to imported foods. The FDA also could ban shipments from a foreign processing facility if it refuses to allow FDA inspectors on the premises.
What could turn the food industry against the bill is a potential amendment by Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., that would exempt small farmers from FDA regulation.
“It’s disappointing to us because as an industry, we’ve been asking for a food safety bill and worked for several years with FDA and Congress, trying to get regulations in place to protect consumer health,” said Bob Whitaker, chief science and technical officer for the Produce Marketing Association in Dover, Del. The PMA represents growers and processors of fresh produce.
Whitaker said exempting small-scale growers would defeat the purpose of a bill that was intended to give the FDA even-handed authority among all domestic and foreign food suppliers.
“We said for years we wanted science- and risk-based food safety legislation that’s equal for both domestic and imported food,” Whitaker said. “Pathogens and bacteria don’t know what size farm they’re on. They don’t know how far away they are from a city or a state line.”
Lisa Shames, director of natural resources and environment for the Government Accountability Office, said the bill would put the FDA on a par with other agencies with recall authority, such as the Consumer Products Safety Commission for toys, and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which can recall tires.
“But FDA cannot recall food. It relies on companies to do that voluntarily. Usually, companies do, because it’s bad business to have the publicity that contaminated food is still on the shelves,” Shames said. “Nevertheless, there’s a lot of time taken to compel companies to do recalls. Time is lost, and there’s a risk that more people are going to get sick.”
Shames said the FDA also wants to shift responsibility for the safety of food imports to their sources. “The bill would help in imposing preventive controls that importers would need to have in place. It would require importers to be more aware of the source of their food.
“The press is mischaracterizing this bill by calling it food safety reform,” Shames said. “It’s a good bill to boost FDA’s impact, and by extension it will help the general food supply, since FDA is responsible for about 80 percent of the foods that we eat.”
But the FDA doesn’t have the money or personnel to make its new authority effective. “The food side is the poorer side of FDA,” Shames said. “Its responsibilities have really outstripped its resources. For just inspecting the number of facilities that are under its jurisdiction, we figured it would be a multibillion-dollar effort.”
“For the importing community, the bigger concern is that you have FDA flexing its muscles, often with new untrained staff. They’re not answering the phone; they’re not responding to emails,” Los Angeles attorney Susan Kohn Ross said. “They’re where Customs was 25 years ago.”
In effect, the FDA has become more of an impediment to trade than it has been before.
“If Congress wanted to do something, they would give FDA more staff, more money and a better information technology system,” Ross said. “In this budget environment, it’s very difficult to expect the agency is going to get more resources. I don’t think anybody thinks that they’re not trying to do their job; it’s just that they’re dysfunctional in the process.”
Contact R.G. Edmonson at firstname.lastname@example.org.