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Food safety bill proposal triggers spat

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By Sally Schuff

A major food safety bill that would reform the Food & Drug Administration's authorities to prevent foodborne illness and to regulate food production is expected to be debated on the House floor this week.

Earlier this summer, the bill -- H.R. 2749, advanced by the House Energy & Commerce Committee on June 17 -- was touted by its members as a model of bipartisan consensus building.

That happy talk ended on July 16, however, when the House Agriculture Committee invited livestock and farm organizations to express their views.

Agricultural witnesses found serious fault with the bill's proposals, particularly one that would allow FDA to regulate on-farm production practices and to require recordkeeping many believe would be burdensome and duplicative.

North Carolina Farm Bureau president Larry Wooten testified, "The bill would, for the first time, permit the FDA oversight of many on-farm production activities with which it has little to no experience and which have not traditionally been under its jurisdiction on a routine basis."

At the heart of the concern is that FDA lacks the expertise and resources to be involved in on-farm inspections of production practices. Any on-farm involvement should be the domain of the U.S. Department of Agriculture -- the agency with institutional knowledge of farming practices, the panel of agricultural witnesses testified.

While the bill's reach into on-farm food production practices has caused concern among mainstream agriculture, it has also caused a firestorm of criticism in cyberspace, particularly among small farm and organic advocates who fear that they will be affected by food safety police and burdensome regulations that they claim are designed to address problems in "industrial agriculture."

House Agriculture Committee chairman Collin Peterson (D., Minn.) reported that he would meet with House Energy & Commerce leaders Reps. John Dingell (D., Mich.) and Henry Waxman (D., Cal.) to "clarify" the bill's language on exemptions for livestock operations and grain farms from FDA regulatory oversight.

"If they don't fix this, I'm thinking of having a markup on the bill and reporting the bill unfavorably," Peterson said last week before the meeting.

(The House Agriculture Committee has jurisdiction over USDA, which inspects meat, poultry and eggs, under the authority granted in federal laws. The House Energy & Commerce Committee has jurisdiction over FDA, which is responsible for the majority of other food consumed in the U.S.)

Peterson said he had discussed the food safety bill with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D., Cal.), and "she wants us to work it out."

Peterson's demands would broaden the exemption that emerged from earlier negotiations between the committees and the livestock industry. That deal would exempt livestock operations from FDA oversight. It came about after livestock groups pointed out that meat is under the regulatory jurisdiction of USDA's Federal Meat Inspection Act, so any on-farm oversight should also remain with USDA.

Peterson agreed, noting, "I'm not saying the (USDA) Food Safety & Inspection Service is perfect, but it's a heck of a lot better than FDA."

Additionally, he seeks to add grain farms to the exemption, noting that many farms have both grain and livestock.

Dr. Samuel Ives, director of veterinary services for Cactus Feeders Inc., testified last week that the bill's language needed to be strengthened to make the intent of Congress clear.

Ives testified, "The bill must contain clear legislative language ensuring that FDA is not granted the authority to regulate livestock on farm by mandating productions standards.

"Live animals are not 'food' until the point of processing, which is why this bill needs to clarify that FDA does not have regulatory authority on our farms, ranches or feedlots," he added.

"Cattle producers support language that explicitly excludes livestock and poultry from the definition of food under this bill and the Federal Food, Drug & Cosmetic Act."

Without such language, ambiguity could cloud a century-old working partnership on animal health and meat, poultry and egg inspection between USDA and state departments of health, Ives told the committee.

He also addressed widespread concerns in the agricultural industry regarding new authority the bill would grant FDA to establish a quarantine of "a geographic area where food presents serious adverse health consequences." As currently written, it would be redundant but broader than the authority already assigned to USDA.

Ives testified, "Currently, under the authority of the Animal Health Protection Act, USDA can impose a federal quarantine for animal health reasons when they deem necessary, and USDA works very closely with state agencies."

Under that law, "USDA must provide indemnity to affected producers when the federal government 'takes' an animal. In this bill, FDA would not be required to pay indemnity or even have a qualified reason to extend the quarantine to the live animal area," said Ives, a veterinarian with a doctorate in ruminant nutrition.

The bill, which is aimed at reforms to FDA food inspection, was strongly influenced by the outbreaks of foodborne illness from fresh salad spinach, a table crop that is grown outdoors and is eaten without a cooking step. FDA has authority to regulate fresh produce, and the agency came under heavy criticism following that outbreak and its mistaken recall of tomatoes during an outbreak that was later traced to imported peppers.

American Meat Institute president J. Patrick Boyle reviewed the pathogen reductions that have occurred since USDA adopted hazard analysis and critical control points in 1998. In answer to a question from the panel, Boyle urged regulators to demand more data on foodborne illness.

He said in the future, the government "could make better regulatory decisions with more attribution data from the Centers for Disease Control (& Prevention)."

For instance, Boyle said, despite advances in pathogen reduction in the meat and poultry industry, "we don't know which foods cause salmonellosis, so we can't target resources."

In his testimony, he criticized the new bill's provisions for mandatory recalls and user fees. 

Unintended consequences?

Nicholas Maravell, who has owned and operated Nick's Organic Farm, a diversified organic livestock and crop farming operation in Maryland, for 30 years, also expressed dismay with the bill. 

"What concerns me most about this bill is that it could be perilously close to making our nation's food safety more difficult to achieve in the long run. ... It will have some unintended consequences," Maravell said.

He noted, "Growth of farmers markets, community-supported agriculture, the buy local and slow food movements and the expansion of organic and sustainable food and farming practices have given the consumer many choices."

Maravell predicted that the costs of implementing the bill would lead to "further industry consolidation and centralization. ... Then, our food supply becomes more susceptible to large shocks, whether from unintended contamination or from bioterrorism."

Carole Tucker-Foreman of the Consumers Federation of America testified in support of the bill on behalf of 11 consumer groups. She noted that the bill would strengthen FDA's authority to prevent foodborne illness.

Pointing to the "almost constant stream of foodborne illness outbreaks traced to FDA-regulated foods over the past few years," she noted that "current law does not give FDA specific authority to establish requirements to prevent foodborne illness."

Tucker-Foreman said the agency is limited to reacting to outbreaks and "often doesn't act until after there are confirmed reports of illness and death.

"That system doesn't work in a global marketplace where food is mass produced and travels around the world in a matter of hours. By the time we know a contaminated product is on the market, it is too late to keep people from getting sick," she told the committee.

In answer to a question from the committee, Tucker-Foreman, who previously has been a high-ranking USDA food safety official, testified that she "would not support ever giving FDA the authority (that) the (USDA) Food Safety & Inspection Service has to inspect meat and poultry."

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