Congress nears last push to revamp food inspections

Food inspector checks tomatoesThere is no question in Congress or anywhere else that food recalls have demonstrated the need to overhaul the system for inspecting plants producing food for the U.S., whether at home or abroad. Getting it done is the problem.

With the November elections near and legislative time fast vanishing, Congress is near its last chance to enact legislation. Even massive outbreaks of foodborne diseases, such as the nationwide egg recall announced this week, has been enough to break the logjam so far.

The Senate could vote on legislation next month, but it and the House of Representatives need to resolve big differences on the Food and Drug Administration Modernization Act then or in a lame-duck session after the election. The looming possibility: The whole issue could be pushed over to the new Congress that takes office in January.

"I've kind of got my fingers crossed," said David Plunkett, senior staff attorney for the Center for Science in the Public Interest. "I would hope they could sit down and resolve it in a day or week. It's not impossible. It is going to be difficult."

It wasn't supposed to be that difficult. Both in the House and the Senate a series of food safety incidents spotlighting problems in inspections and the FDA's lack of recall authority had appeared to galvanize both chambers into action. Government reports said the same thing.

A revamp of the FDA's legal authority and duties pushed by Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., passed the House in July 2009.

It required food plants to start paying a $500 inspection fee and required the FDA inspect plants making high-risk foods every six months to a year, every three to five years for plants making lesser risk foods and warehouses every five years. Overseas plants could only ship foods to the U.S. if they were regularly inspected.

That was nowhere near as often as Department of Agriculture does inspections. The USDA has inspectors in nation's 5,600 meat and produce plants every day. It requires the 1,000 overseas plants supplying meat and produce to have inspections just as often.

Still the numbers represent a big increase for the FDA. The FDA has 156,500 plants to inspect in this country and 230,000 foreign plants. It currently does 600 inspections abroad each year.

The Senate Health Education Labor and Pensions Committee last November unanimously in an earlier bipartisan agreement sent to the Senate floor legislation an only slightly less tough bill, but one that didn't include a fee.

About then everything stopped. A Congressional Budget Office estimate of the cost of the Senate bill, efforts of Sen. Diane Feinstein, D-Calif., to ban food containers containing Bisphenol A (BPA), concerns about the impact of the legislation on small producers affected the debate. Mostly it appeared thought that the Senate consideration of health care, a Supreme Court fight and other issues kept pushing the revamp back.

"I am really disappointed," said Tony Corbo, legislative representative for Food and Water Watch. "Consumer groups were promised in April that it would come up after Easter. Here we are six months later."

Last week, Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, the chairman of the Senate Health Committee announced a bipartisan agreement on a revised proposal saying he was hopeful the bill would pass quickly. It's that revised bill that the Senate could vote on and it's supported by consumer and business groups.

It anticipates having high risk food plants inspected every 5 years and eventually every three years, while plants producing less risky products would be inspected every 7 years. It also requires every food plant home and abroad that produces foods for American consumers to create monitoring programs to prevent food safety problems, requires third party testing of products and gives the FDA authority to order recalls and ban imports of high risk food products that haven't been inspected..

"It is better than the situation right now, but I'm not happy with inspection schedule," said Corbo.

Plunkett said he too prefers the House bill, but that the Senate bill still makes important changes.

"From the consumer perspective, the House bill is a lot stronger, the Senate bill is geared toward catching things before they happen. It puts in place a preventative structure."

Whether the Senate will act in time to reach agreement with the House still remains unclear, but there remains some hope.

"It's on our to do list for the fall," said an aide to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.

Rep. Dingell said he remained hopeful.

"Speed is always an issue when the Senate gets involved, but my good friends over there working on this matter have good intentions," he said. "Once they get the bill through there, I am confident we can make the case for our bill and get a final bill passed in both chambers by the end of this Congress."

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