House farm bill provision could delay new food safety regulations

Efforts to implement the largest overhaul of food safety regulations in 70 years could be imperiled by a provision included in the House-passed farm bill headed to the Senate on Tuesday.

The House legislation, approved last week, contains an amendment requiring the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to conduct a “scientific and economic analysis” of regulations drafted under the Food Safety and Modernization Act (FSMA), further delaying the enactment of new food safety rules.

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The FDA proposed the rules in January, following bipartisan approval of the legislation in late 2010. The law, signed by President Obama the following January, requires farmers and other food producers to adhere to a new set of guidelines, replacing a system that had largely been designed to respond to outbreaks from food-borne illnesses rather than prevent them.

Food safety advocates have complained that the enactment of the new standards has been fraught with delays, and have taken the Obama administration to court in an effort to speed up the process. The FDA now faces a June 2015 deadline to finalize the rules meant to protect the public.

The House bill language, penned by Rep. Dan Benishek (R-Mich.), would further complicate enactment of the rules.

“This basically would slow the wheels of FSMA implementation by allowing another roadblock,” said Colin O’Neil, director of government affairs for the Center for Food Safety.

Sen. Tom Harkin (Iowa) is among the congressional Democrats who are critical of the provision, tweeting last week that the bill “would undermine critical food safety law — while food-borne illness affects 1 in 6/year.”

Benishek drafted the provision to protect farmers in his state from burdensome regulations, his spokesman said.

"Simply put, we lose jobs in Northern Michigan when Washington bureaucrats enact costly new rules that hurt our farmers and agricultural businesses," Kyle Bonini said.

The House was to send its bill to the other end of the Capitol Building on Tuesday after Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) accused GOP leaders of dragging their feet on the bill.

Once it is received in the Senate, Democrats could appoint members of a House-Senate conference committee tasked with reconciling the bill with legislation passed earlier in the upper chamber.

O’Neil said he was hopeful that Harkin, a member of the Agriculture Committee and chairman of the Senate Health Committee, and other food safety proponents, would be appointed to participate in the upcoming negotiations.