Senate immediately should act on bipartisan H.R. 2749

Every American eats. There is nothing more basic and necessary than protecting our food supply. That’s why Americans have a right to be angry after a series of outbreaks, including salmonella from peanut products, melamine from infant formula, tainted peppers from Mexico, harmful seafood from China and E. coli in spinach. Without congressional action, it will only be a matter of time before we have another major food safety scare on our hands.

Unfortunately, we’ve had no fresh food scare in recent months and the intensity driving people to act has cooled off. With a lack of media coverage, the attention of policymakers has slowly shifted from food safety to other pressing matters.

This shift in focus, however, does not change the facts surrounding the safety of our nation’s food. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), approximately 76 million food-borne illnesses occur, more than 300,000 persons are hospitalized, and 5,000 die. While not as high-profile as the peanut product contamination case in Georgia last year, food recalls continue to take place, and American consumers remain at risk. Currently, CDC, the Food and Drug Administration and the Department of Agriculture are investigating an outbreak of Salmonella Montevideo infections associated with certain Italian-style sausage products. According to CDC, 213 people have been infected with a matching strain of Salmonella Montevideo in at least 42 states and the District of Columbia.

I commend President Barack Obama and the early attention he paid to issues of food safety. Early in his administration, he created a new food safety working group to advise him on upgrading the U.S. food safety system. President Obama’s FDA has demonstrated a renewed focus on food safety. Unlike his predecessors, President Obama has not hesitated to articulate the true needs of the FDA in its fight to protect a larger, increasingly global food supply.

I applaud the energy the current administration has displayed in tackling our food safety problems; however, their actions are no substitute for comprehensive food safety reform. It is not until we give FDA the tools and resources needed to bring our approach into the 21st century will the American people truly be protected. A 21st century approach to food safety places a premium on prevention and focuses less on reacting to food safety problems after they occur. A 21st century approach to food safety holds manufacturers accountable for the safety of the food they provide American consumers. A 21st century approach to food safety requires a regulatory agency with the personnel, scientific expertise, and resources to put proper protections in place to prevent nasty food-borne illness from occurring.

H.R. 2749, the Food Safety Enhancement Act, is legislation I authored that will certainly foster a 21st century approach to food safety. H.R. 2749 grants FDA the authorities and the resources needed to ensure the safety of American consumers. Specifically, the bill will:

• Prevent food safety problems from occurring by requiring food facilities to have safety plans in place to identify and mitigate hazards; • Increase the frequency of FDA inspections of food facilities;

• Provide strong, flexible enforcement tools, including mandatory recall, stronger penalties for bad actors, administrative detention, and subpoena authority;

• Provide FDA tools to ensure imported products meet U.S. safety standards and require importers to meet the same standards as American manufacturers;

• Significantly expand FDA traceback capabilities in the event of an outbreak of foodborne illness;

• Most importantly, generate the resources needed to support FDA food safety activities.

Food safety is not a partisan issue. That is why H.R. 2749 enjoyed bipartisan support in the House and passed 283-142 in July 2009. Unfortunately, similar legislation in the Senate, S. 510, has not moved with the same urgency. The sense of urgency to provide a systematic fix has waned. It is only a matter of time before we have another major food safety scare on our hands.

It is not good enough to wait until the TV cameras roll to get something done.

Now in fairness to my Senate colleagues, they are a bit overwhelmed. They are sitting on nearly 290 House-passed bills held up over there. But I would argue this one must be acted on soon. We should not have to explain to a grieving family why something didn’t get done even though we knew there was a problem, but that is exactly what will happen if we fail to act.

Dingell is a member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.