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Hoping to Make Food Safer, States Decide to Go It Alone


Article from Wall Street Journal

When it comes to food safety, state lawmakers around the country seem to believe in the adage, if you want something done, you have to do it yourself.

Frustrated by the response in Washington to the recent spate of food-borne illnesses, state and local politicians are adopting tougher safety laws independent of federal rules. The worry, say some critics, is that a patchwork of regulations will emerge, creating costly and unnecessary hassles for food makers and distributors.

Georgia recently enacted legislation that gives food processors 24 hours to report internal tests that find tainted products. The state's peanut industry was hit hard after a widespread salmonella outbreak was traced to a processing plant in rural Blakely, Ga.

Idaho enacted a law last month that authorizes the state to charge food services, retailers and processors a licensing fee to help pay for food-safety inspections. And bills are moving ahead in Oregon, California and at least a dozen other states.

[food-safety law chart]

The federal government's inability to quickly trace the source of many outbreaks has clearly angered lawmakers in both parties. The Food and Drug Administration, working with a stagnant budget in recent years, has lost many of its food scientists and has been able to inspect only a tiny fraction of the nation's processing plants and food facilities, let alone the growing volume of imports. President Barack Obama's budget released last week aims to rectify that by increasing food-safety spending by $259 million and hiring 222 food inspectors in the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1.

The FDA already has begun stepping up inspections, spokesman Michael L. Herndon said in an email, noting that the agency planned to add 250 investigators in the current fiscal year.

But state lawmakers continue to pursue their own efforts, despite complaints by some food-industry representatives who fear an onerous hodgepodge of state regulations. The lawmakers contend state laws will complement efforts by the Obama administration to toughen food-safety oversight.

Food-industry groups say anything other than a uniform federal food-safety system will add to their costs. "It's a good thing states are trying to raise the bar and improve food safety, but it needs to be looked at carefully," said Robert Brackett, chief science officer of the Grocery Manufacturers Association, a trade group in Washington. "It should really lead to a national system."

In all, some 600 bills addressing food safety have been introduced in state legislatures since January, said Doug Farquhar, a program director at the National Conference of State Legislatures. Of those, 135 bills would tighten standards on food inspections, processing and sanitation, up from fewer than 100 in 2008, he said.

This winter's outbreak of salmonella linked to a Georgia peanut processing plant appears to have triggered a number of the bills. It was one of several major outbreaks in recent years that were traced to products including sprouts, peanut butter, tomatoes, spinach and hot peppers from Mexico.

"I think states are reacting to the perceived lack of federal oversight on food," Mr. Farquhar said. "They were seeing these outbreaks, and it put pressure on state legislatures to respond, to do something."

The Oregon Senate, with the support of the food industry, passed legislation in February that would let the state impose civil fines of as much as $10,000 for food-safety violations. Under current law, a food company must be convicted of a criminal violation and the fine is limited to $200.

An Oregon House panel recently approved the measure unanimously, and the House could pass it this month.

California lawmakers have introduced a bill aimed at strengthening food safety after a massive recall this year of pistachios from Setton Pistachio of Terra Bella Inc. that could be tainted with salmonella. Like the new Georgia law, it would require food processors to report positive tests for pathogens or harmful contaminants within 24 hours. It also would require food processors to keep detailed safety plans to prevent contamination and stepped-up testing of foods from California facilities.

In Oregon, state Sen. Ginny Burdick of Portland said the state agriculture department pressed for the measure to increase food-safety fines because the salmonella outbreak in Georgia made officials realize the weakness of Oregon's food-safety enforcement. "It's a tremendous public-health issue," she said. "We have to provide strong incentives for the whole food chain to behave responsibly and protect the public's health."

Consumer groups applaud state efforts to toughen regulation. "We support states' right to do that, especially when the federal government has historically been slow or not responding," said Urvashi Rangan, director of technical policy at Consumers Union, publisher of Consumer Reports.


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