Funding fight looms over newly passed food-safety legislation

Food-safety advocates barely done celebrating the passage of new legislation in Congress are now gearing up for the fight to implement and fund the landmark bill.

After a lengthy and tortuous journey through the Senate, bipartisan food-safety legislation finally cleared the House just one day before the 111th Congress adjourned.

President Obama is expected to sign the bill early this week after his return from Hawaii. It is then, after three contentious votes in the House and two in the Senate over the past 18 months, the real debate will begin.

The legislation gives the Food and Drug Administration the power to recall tainted food, quarantine geographical areas and access food producers’ records.

Among the first controversies will be how to pay the legislation’s projected $1.4 billion cost over the first five years. Republicans taking over the House have warned they will not fund the bill.

“People often focus on the legislative process, when really this is just the beginning, not the end,” said Sandra Eskin, director of The Pew Charitable Trusts’s Food Safety Campaign.

The Senate eschewed the $500 annual fee on processing facilities that the House adopted when it first passed its version of the bill in July 2009, leaving the program at the mercy of the appropriations process. The House bill’s sponsor, Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.), raised that very concern when the Senate first passed its version of the bill.

“Since the very beginning, I have stressed the importance of a steady and predictable revenue stream for the agency to effectively do its work,” Dingell said at the time. “New authorities without the necessary resources to exercise those authorities is not ideal.”

Already, House Republicans are warning that funding the bill isn't their top priority.

“We still have a food supply that’s 99.99 percent safe,” Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.), the incoming chairman of the appropriations subcommittee with jurisdiction over the FDA, told The Washington Post. “No one wants anybody to get sick, and we should always strive to make sure food is safe. But the case for a $1.4 billion expenditure isn’t there.”

Eskin said she expects some advocates to continue to make the case for some kind of industry fee to pay for the program, similar to what the drug industry and medical device makers pay to fund FDA oversight.

In addition to the fight over funding, regulations implementing the law will come under intense lobbying and scrutiny over the next few years. These include:

• Requirements for food-safety plans that food processors will have to abide by in coming years;

• New produce safety standards for high-risk, raw fruit and vegetable growers, possibly including new regulations for irrigation water and compost;

• A risk-based inspection schedule; and

• A new approach to food imports that makes food importers responsible for guaranteeing that imported food is grown or processed under the same standards as those spelled out in the new law.

Some lobbying from states is also expected, since they'll be able to seek a variance from the produce safety standards as long as they can show that they have procedures in place to reach the same goals.