Tuesday, December 21, 2010

House Passes Food Safety Legislation; President Obama Will Shortly Sign It Into Law

White House can now celebrate the passage of the two biggest food reform bills in modern history...but produce growers warn of trouble ahead for food safety, due to inclusion of Tester/Hagen Amendment
UPDATE: President Obama signed the bill on Jan. 4, 2010
After a brief but impassioned round of debate, the House on Tuesday afternoon approved comprehensive food safety legislation that dramatically boosts the powers of FDA, on a vote of 215-144. The FDA Food Safety Modernization Act, thought dead until revived with a surprise Senate approval by unanimous consent on Sunday evening, has now cleared the final legislative hurdle, and can be signed into law by President Obama. With the passage of the groundbreaking child nutrition legislation earlier this month, the Obama Administration can now take credit for shepherding the two biggest food reform bills in decades through the legislative process. Each contain unprecedented elements. Both were controversial, and required hard-fought battles on the road to becoming law.

"On behalf of our nation's children, in the name of the health and well-being of all Americans, we have passed a major overhaul of American food safety that will protect lives and prevent illness," House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) said in a statement after the vote. "With the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act, we will fundamentally change the way we protect public health and the safety of our food supply."

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack noted that the legislation provides the government with crucial tools in the battle against foodborne illness.

"I applaud leaders in Congress for passing this important bill and look forward to President Obama signing this legislation," Sec. Vilsack said. "Protecting consumers from harm is a fundamental function of government and with passage of this landmark food safety legislation USDA remains committed to keeping food safety a top priority.”

The White House has not yet announced the date for the signing or a signing ceremony for the legislation; on Wednesday morning, the President will sign the Don't Ask , Don't Tell Repeal Act of 2010, another major lame duck legislative win for the Administration.

>Click here for a recap of what the bill does

The final debate...
During today's final debate on the House floor, Rep. John Dingell (D-MI) announced that China would "kill their own people" with poison food, and sell it in the US "with glee," as he argued for his colleagues to re-support a bill that they'd already voted on.

Among other things, the legislation boosts FDA's powers over imported foods, and creates mandatory recalls for tainted foods. Currently less than 1% of food stuffs imported into America are inspected, and recalls are voluntary--there is no requirement for a food producer or processor to take their foods off store shelves, even if these are known to be contaminated. The new law wil be the first comprehensive changes in food safety in the US in more than seven decades. The child nutrition legislation provides the first major changes to federal nutrition policy in about four decades.

"I beg you to pass this legislation," Rep. Dingell said. He led the campaign to get the stronger House version of the legislation passed eighteen months ago.

Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT), who has introduced legislation that will create a single food safety agency, vowed to keep working for that goal, but nonetheless she, too, plead for her fellow lawmakers to give the bill a yes vote, as did every other Dem who took a turn at the microphone.

Produce growers: Inclusion of Tester/Hagen Amendment "a profound error "
Not everyone was happy with the passage of the legislation, however, in particular a major group of America's produce grower and processes. United Fresh Produce Association, which initially supported the bill and worked hard for its passage over the last two years, released a cautionary statement that the inclusion of the Tester/Hagen Amendment, which exempts smaller growers and processors from full regulation, is a dangerous turn of events. The amendment was the subject of much controversy over the last few months, and derailed the forward movement of the legislation multiple times.

The produce industry has experienced multiple, massive recalls for tainted foods over the last decade, including spinach, lettuces, cantaloupe, sprouts, cilantro...

“The good in this bill, however, is still accompanied by the bad," said United Fresh Produce Association Senior Vice President of Public Policy Robert Guenther. "[The Tester/Hagen Amendment] threatens the health and well-being of a nation of consumers by exempting some producers and processors based only on the size of their business, their geographic location, or to whom they sell their products."

Gunther noted that these exemptions, "based on non-scientific qualifications," will limit the ability of FDA "to assure consumers that all foods they purchase, whether at grocery stores, restaurants, farm markets, or elsewhere, have met the same food safety standards."

"We remain fearful that this profound error will come back to haunt Congress, public health agencies, and even those who thought they would benefit from food safety exemptions, but more importantly, we are fearful of what may slip through the food safety loopholes created by the Tester/Hagan Amendment and adversely affect consumers in the United States," Gunether said.

The CDC earlier this month released new statistics for foodborne disease, estimating that 48 million Americans fall ill annually, with more than 3,000 fatalities.

*73 lawmakers had already left Washington, DC, when the House voted today.

*In the photo at top of post, President Obama is actually celebrating the birthday of Phil Schiliro, assistant to the president for legislative affairs, on Aug. 6, 2009. Photo by Pete Souza/White House