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A Breakthrough on Food Safety?

August 19, 2010 - by Donny Shaw

Here’s one more thing to add to the Senate’s already packed September schedule.

Last week, an evenly bipartisan group of six senators from the Health, Education, Labor and Pesnsions Committee released a manager’s amendment to the long-stalled Senate food safety bill (S.510) that they hope will provide the framework for moving forward. Hill folks are expecting this to come up before the Senate leaves for campaign season.

The main point of contention with this bill has been its potential negative impacts on small farms. Everyone, of course, wants to improveme regulatory oversight of industrial food production in order to prevent things like the recent salmonella egg outbreak, but nobody, beides maybe agribusiness, wants to overburden small and/or organic farms with fees and paperwork. The new manager’s amendment is designed to strike a blance. Here’s what’s in it, according to a press release from the negotiators:

Hazard analysis and preventive controls: Requires facilities that manufacture, process, pack or hold food to have in place risk-based preventive control plans to address identified hazards and prevent adulteration, and gives FDA access to these plans and relevant documentation. These requirements do not apply to restaurants or most farms.

Imports: Requires importers to verify the safety of foreign suppliers and imported food. Allows FDA to require certification for high-risk foods, and to deny entry to a food that lacks certification or that is from a foreign facility that has refused U.S. inspectors. Creates a voluntary qualified importer program in which importers with a certification of safety for their foreign supplier can pay a user-free for expedited entry into the U.S.

Inspection: Gives FDA additional resources to hire new inspectors and requires FDA to inspect food facilities more frequently.

Mandatory Recall Authority: Gives FDA the authority to order a mandatory recall of a food product if the food will cause serious adverse health consequences or death and a company has failed to voluntarily recall the product upon FDA’s request.

Regulatory Balance: Achieves new requirements without being excessively burdensome. The legislation provides training for facilities to come into compliance with new safety requirements and includes special accommodations for small businesses and farms. It does not interfere with current organic farming practices and does not change the current definition of farm under the 2002 Bioterrorism Act. Any farm that is not currently required to register with FDA will not be required to do so under this legislation.

Surveillance: Enhances surveillance systems to detect food-borne illnesses.

Traceback: Requires FDA to establish a pilot project to test and evaluate new methods for rapidly tracking foods in the event of a food-borne illness outbreak.

Increased FDA Resources: Increases funding for FDA’s food safety activities through increased appropriations and targeted fees for food facility reinspection, food recalls, and the voluntary qualified importer program.

You can read the actual 225-page legislative text for yourself by downloading this PDF.

For all intents and purposes, the manager’s amendment is a new bill. But since it is in the form of a manager’s amendment to an old version, it exists only in PDF and is not published through Congress’ usual channels, so we can’t parse this at OpenCongress. If we could, we would be able to point you to a machine-generated line-by-line comparison of exactly how this new version changes the old version. Sounds like something that would be pretty handy, right? This is precisely why Congress should adopt open data standards that would allow people like us (and others) to remix the infromation and make it even more useful. Instead we are stuck with a 225-page text that is discernable only to lawyers, a summary provided by senators who are actively pushing it, or, potentially, the analytical work of journalists and interest groups.

Going back to the compromise itself for a second, many folks have noted that it lacks two of the most widely-discussed committee amendments — one from Sen. Jon Tester [D, MT] to exempt farms that do less than $500,000 in business per year from following some of the new guidelines, and one from Sen. Dianne Feinstein [D, CA] to ban BPA’s in food packaging. Those will probably come up again on the Senate floor, and whether or not they are adopted will have a big effect on what ultimately happens with the bill.

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