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Food-Safety Bill Spurs Backlash

Article from The Wall Street Journal

By Jane Zhang

WASHINGTON -- Legislation to overhaul the nation's food-safety system has spurred a backlash from livestock and grain farmers who don't want the Food and Drug Administration inspecting farms.

The legislation, approved by the House Energy and Commerce Committee last month, aims to give the FDA more money and authority to police food safety, and technically doesn't apply to foods the agency doesn't regulate: meat, poultry and some egg products, which are regulated by the Department of Agriculture.

But livestock and grain farmers say the legislation isn't written clearly enough, and they gave lawmakers and regulators an earful Thursday at a House Agriculture Committee hearing.

"Live animals are not 'food' until the point of processing, which is why this bill needs to clarify that the FDA does not have regulatory authority on our farms, ranches and feedlots," said Sam Ives, a veterinarian who spoke for the National Cattlemen's Beef Association.

Larry Wooten, president of the North Carolina Farm Bureau Federation, said the bill would give the FDA power that overlaps with the USDA. "FDA doesn't have the personnel, funding, knowledge, expertise or time to regulate agriculture production practices," he told lawmakers.

The bill's main sponsor, Rep. John Dingell (D., Mich.), doesn't seek to include livestock and other farms under the Energy and Commerce Committee's jurisdiction, said Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson (D., Minn.). The Energy and Commerce Committee oversees the FDA.

Mr. Petersen said he will meet with Mr. Dingell and Commerce Committee Chairman Henry Waxman (D., Calif.) to press for further clarification to exclude livestock and grain farms. If not successful, he said, he will hold hearings to stop the legislation from going to the House floor.

"We are a little skeptical of FDA," Mr. Peterson said outside of the hearing room Thursday. "We are very concerned about them getting involved in grain farms, livestock farms."

The dispute came as Congress moves toward approval of legislation to address gaps in the nation's food-safety system. The FDA has been under fire for a recent string of food-borne-illness outbreaks involving products such as spinach, peanut butter and hot peppers. The House bill would give the FDA the authority to demand records during food-safety inspections and impose new civil penalties.

The USDA, however, hasn't come under as much criticism, even though it has been involved in several recent beef recalls, including more than 400,000 pounds of beef recalled from companies JBS Swift & Co. of Greeley, Colo., because of possible E. coli contamination. The agency is better funded and operates under a different federal law.

The White House, meanwhile, has also made food safety a priority. A cabinet-level panel recently recommended that the FDA and USDA shift their emphasis to preventing illnesses rather than tracking them down after an outbreak begins.

Some farmers -- mostly those producing fresh fruits and vegetables, which had been hit with several large-scale outbreaks -- have asked the FDA to mandate food-safety standards.

"In fact, the industry has developed a set of policy principles that call for mandatory, science-based and commodity-specific standards," said Drew McDonald, a vice president at Taylor Farms in Salinas, Calif. "We are pleased that the consensus in Congress has grown in support of those principles."

Write to Jane Zhang at [email protected]

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