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Food safety to wait on health care reform

By Tom Karst | The Packer

Senate leaders are talking up the possibility of completing food safety legislation this fall, but changes in Senate committee leadership positions and continuation of the health care reform debate will take center stage when Congress reconvenes Sept. 8.

Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, said Sept. 2 there was a definite need for food safety standards for fruits and vegetables, The Des Moines Register reported Sept. 3.

“This is becoming a real concern, particularly as people are incorporating more fresh fruits and vegetables into their diets,” Harkin said at a meeting sponsored by the Make Our Food Safe Coalition at Drake University.

Harkin reminded the audience the Senate has to finish its work on health care before it takes up food safety legislation.

Key industry issues on Capitol Hill this fall will include legislation touching on food safety and nutrition programs, said Tom Stenzel, president of the United Fresh Produce Association, Washington, D.C.

Beyond Senate food safety legislation based on S. 510, sponsored by Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., , the reauthorization of the Child Nutrition Act is expected as soon as October.  Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., wants to increase the free lunch subsidy for schools by 70 cents.

In the House, Rep. Sam Farr, D-Calif., is expected to introduce a bill in September called the Children’s Fruit and Vegetable Act, which would require the U.S. Department of Agriculture to promote salad bars in schools nationwide and purchase more produce for school breakfast and lunch programs.

Health care first
Resolving what it will do with health care reform complicates Senate action on food safety, lobbyists say.

Still, food safety reform legislation passed the House with bipartisan support.

“I think it has a shot,” said Tom O’Brien, Washington, D.C., representative of the Newark, Del.-based Produce Marketing Association.

O’Brien said all legislative solutions give the Food and Drug Administration great latitude in how it would regulate the fresh produce industry.

Meanwhile, O’Brien said it was likely Edward Avalos would be confirmed in September as USDA’s undersecretary for marketing and regulatory programs when Congress returns. Avalos would oversee the Agricultural Marketing Service and the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.

Funding for FDA, USDA
In other developments, the House and the Senate have passed appropriation bills for the FDA and the U.S. Depart-ment of Agriculture, and it is possible the conference version of the appropriation bills will be passed by the start of the fiscal on Oct. 1.

Senate debate on climate change legislation and potential consideration of immigration reform fill out the legislative calendar, sources said.
Senate legislation on the climate change bill is being fine-tuned, lawmakers said, and could be released by the end of September.

Committee chair shuffle?
Harkin, chairman of the Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee, is involved in a possible reshuffling of committee leadership after the death of Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass.

Harkin is a possible successor to take over the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee — the committee Kennedy chaired. If so, he would have to give up his current committee leadership role.

If Harkin vacates his ag chairman post, Sen. Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark., may be a prime candidate to replace him.


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