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Timing of Senate food safety bill is uncertain

By Don Sapatkin | GovernmentExecutive.com

Whether the Senate takes up food safety legislation sponsored by Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill., this fall depends on whether the Health Education, Labor and Pensions Committee finishes health care reform and has time to take it up, a Senate Democratic aide said on Tuesday.

After the House passed a food safety bill late last month, Senate Democratic leadership staff listed the Durbin bill as one Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., would like to move this fall.

But the aide said on Tuesday that "it is unclear at the moment whether the Health committee will be able to do it because of their involvement in healthcare reform." Durbin introduced his bipartisan bill in March, but no hearings have been held on it.

Durbin's bill contains some of the provisions in the House-passed bill, but there are also substantial differences and the Senate will take up Durbin's bill rather than the House version, the aide said.

According to a congressional analysis, both the House-passed bill and Durbin's version would expand FDA's access to records to determine whether firms are complying with food safety laws, strengthen registration requirements so FDA has accurate, up-to-date information on food facilities and require facilities to have preventive control plans that address hazards before they occur.

They both would direct FDA to identify the most significant food-borne contaminants and issue performance standards, or benchmarks, for whether a food is safe. Both would establish produce safety standards.

And both would increase the number of FDA inspections and set mandatory inspection frequencies, establish a process to accredit food testing laboratories that provide test results to FDA and improve surveillance and traceback efforts.

Both bills would grant FDA mandatory recall authority, authorize FDA to require import certificates to assure the safety of high-risk imports and establish reinspection and recall fees for firms not in compliance with food safety laws.

But Durbin's bill does not contain House provisions for a $500 per facility registration fee, with an annual cap of $175,000 for any individual owner, or requirements that all facilities have a food safety plan in place before putting food into interstate commerce and that companies submit to FDA all positive test results for finished food products.

Only the House bill would require a provision for a nationwide traceback system, civil monetary penalties for violating food safety laws, country-of-origin labeling requirements for certain products, whistleblower protection for food company employees who disclose violations of food safety laws and a mandate for HHS to determine the safety of BPA in food and beverage containers by the end of 2009.

Although it passed by a 2-to-1 margin, the House food safety bill was still controversial.

It had strong support from consumer groups and the United Fresh Produce Association, whose fruit and vegetable grower members have been hurt by outbreaks of food borne illness from tainted spinach and Mexican peppers.

Although almost all farm groups supported or were neutral on the House bill, some farm leaders consider it too intrusive. The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition and the National Organic Council said the $500 annual fees are too high for small processors. The Senate bill does not contain fees, but it is unclear how that bill would pay for FDA's increased level of regulation and inspection.

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