Against the tide, bipartisan legislation emerges on food safety

“Food is our common ground, a universal experience,” wrote James Beard, the legendary cookbook author.  From “breaking bread” to “raising a glass,” food helps establish comity and goodwill — even reconciliation. And if there’s one place in the country that could use an infusion of comity, it’s the United States Congress.

Amid the rancorous partisanship that has marked the past year in the nation’s capital, a bipartisan effort to pass food safety legislation has been quietly taking shape.  While the healthcare negotiations have broken down, restarted, and now seem to be in limbo, efforts quiet but sure to upgrade the Food and Drug Administration’s food safety mandate are progressing steadily. The last push for Senate action is near.  And that effort is evidence that Washington can sometimes work, albeit slowly.  

Long before the recent parade of food safety outbreaks and recalls, many members of Congress had sought to solve problems with the regulation of the food supply, especially at FDA.  That work, which started for several members in the late 1990s, is finally coming to fruition.  However, it is urgent that that FDA food safety legislation, which could improve the safety of 80 percent of the food supply, not get pushed behind other pressing issues that are less likely to garner bipartisan support.

Over the last few years, repeated outbreaks and recalls linked to everything from spinach to pet food to peanut butter have caused consumers to lose confidence in the ability of the food industry and the government to protect them.  Besides causing needless illnesses, hospitalizations and even deaths, those recalls exposed some in the food industry —even growers and processors whose foods were perfectly safe—to record losses.  Congress held over two dozen hearings that provided important new investigative findings and answers from key regulators.  All the while, members also solicited information and advice from food safety experts, consumer advocates and the industry on what reforms were needed to address the problems. 

The House version of the legislation was shaped over the course of these hearings, with the leadership of such House Energy and Commerce Committee members as Chairman Henry Waxman, Chairman Emeritus John Dingell, Rep. Joe Barton and Rep. Frank Pallone, working with the key chairwoman of House Appropriations agriculture subcommittee, Rep. Rosa DeLauro.  The bill passed the House on July 30, with a bipartisan coalition backing a vote of 283 to 142.

The Senate has also worked cooperatively to craft legislation under the leadership of Democratic Sens. Dick Durbin, Sen. Tom Harkin, and the late Sen. Edward Kennedy, often working side by side with Republican Sens. Richard Burr and Judd Gregg.  The legislation, which passed in the HELP Committee unanimously on Nov. 18, today has 15 cosponsors, including seven Republicans.  It is awaiting a final floor vote before moving to conference.

The push for food safety isn’t just uniting Democrats and Republicans.  Consumer and industry interests have formed an alliance of strange bedfellows, working more closely than ever to support new funding for FDA and to develop answers to the complex questions of how to modernize its food safety program. All agreed that FDA was working with antiquated legal structures that were incapable of addressing challenging problems, such as how to ensure the safety of the growing volume of imported foods and ingredients.  

Both the House-passed bill and the pending Senate bill would give FDA new authority and stronger tools to prevent food from being contaminated in the first place.  Additional funding for the agency is also essential to ensure that these new programs translate into real public health improvements.

Passage of FDA food safety legislation this year would be a huge achievement for Congress and the administration, though the job is far from complete.

{mosads}They still must address serious shortcomings elsewhere in our food safety system, particularly at the Department of Agriculture, which oversees the safety of meat and poultry products. But the emergence of bipartisan agreement on food safety is a victory in its own right.

At his inauguration, President Obama said: “The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works.” A government that works is one that protects its citizens from unsafe food; prevents food outbreaks and recalls; minimizes litigation and losses; and avoids healthcare costs.  Passage of new FDA food safety legislation would help restore the public’s confidence in the food supply.  And it would do just as much to restore the public’s confidence in Congress.

DeWaal is director of food safety for the Center for Science in the Public Interest and the author of Is Our Food Safe? A Consumer’s Guide to Protecting Your Health and the Environment.

Tags Dick Durbin Richard Burr Tom Harkin

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