Animal Welfare: Food Safety Enhancement Act is misguided

 Rather than rushing another complex bill through the House as a suspension with no opportunity for amendment, the Agriculture Committee needs to have the chance to review and mark up this bill. Republicans on the Ag Committee have made repeated requests for a markup because food safety is too important an issue to rush.

In the 19th congressional district of Texas, producers who sell mainly raw products off their farms are increasingly asking me about the food safety debate here in Washington and what changes it might bring to the food system. Unfortunately, I have to report to them the legislation that passed the House Energy and Commerce Committee last month will grant bureaucrats unprecedented punitive powers to deal with problems that have already occurred rather than using sound science to focus on prevention first.

In fact, the Food Safety Enhancement Act reported by the Energy and Commerce Committee does little to add to food safety but does a lot to add to federal bureaucracy. Such further unnecessary regulatory burdens on farms and small businesses mean that more food production and processing will move offshore and prices will rise — harming both American workers and consumers during these tough economic times. One such example is the authority to mandate an industry-wide food traceability system. The ability to trace food after the fact does not prevent food-borne illness, but we do know that a cost of such a system would be exorbitant — even if the feasibility of such a system were known.

In addition, this legislation will direct the Food and Drug Administration to set performance standards for agricultural production practices.  Simply put, this bill would allow the same agency that caused severe economic damage to the tomato industry from wrongly attributing a salmonella outbreak during 2008, to tell farmers how to farm. It also grants FDA the authority to show up unannounced on a farm and view a farmer’s records, quarantine an entire geographic area with merely a “reasonable belief,” and further expand Country of Origin Labeling (COOL). Our trading partners Mexico and Canada are already bringing trade cases against COOL. COOL has nothing to do with food safety and, frankly, belongs in laws dealing with food marketing and promotion, not the FDA.

I am also deeply concerned with a provision amending a carefully constructed food processing facility registration program into what amounts to a federal licensing program for anyone with the desire to be in the food business. When Congress created the food facility registration program as part of the Public Health Security and Bioterrorism Preparedness and Response Act of 2002, it did so for the sole purpose of enabling the FDA to find regulated facilities. In fact, language was specifically included to make clear that it was not Congress’s intent that this be a permit or licensing program. Provisions in the Food Safety Enhancement Act of 2009 would turn this program into just that, a federal licensing program, while simultaneously imposing a significant new tax burden on small businesses.

I do not believe Congress should grant FDA the authority to micromanage and tax farmers and small businesses who take great pride in their labors to feed the world. With all the current problems confronting the FDA, why should the American people believe expanding its powers to react after the fact will make their food safer? I believe Congress would be wise to first focus on making sure the agency has the necessary resources and is fully enforcing the many food safety regulations it has been entrusted with for years.

Building on a properly functioning FDA, Congress should take a more practical approach to food safety by working with the FDA, food producers and scientists to identify the best ways of seamlessly integrating stronger preventative food safety protocols into our food processing and distribution industry. That approach would not raise food costs. It would, however, allow American food products to remain competitive in the world market and, at the same time, strengthen food safety.

As Congress continues to debate food safety legislation, we must remember that everyone plays a role in food safety. Farmers, ranchers, meat and poultry processors, shippers, retailers, commercial food facilities, restaurants, consumers — everyone involved in the food chain from farm to table — is vital to food safety. Every stage in the process, including final preparations made by consumers in their kitchens, contributes to the ultimate success or failure of any food safety system.

We must all work together to create sound food regulation policies. As a parent and grandparent, I know and understand the concerns and importance of food safety. I also believe regulations that produce no food safety benefit and create restrictions on the safest food supply in the world are not a step in the right direction. When families across the country are trying to put food on the dinner table, they do not need more legislation from this Congress to drive up their food prices when better food safety could be achieved through more effective and cost-efficient means.

Neugebauer is ranking member of the House Subcommittee on Livestock, Dairy and Poultry in the House Agriculture Committee.