Congress moves on to next challenge: food safety

by Leslie Turk

Now that the president and Beltway Republicans have settled on the tax rate debate - hopefully - lawmakers can begin focusing on what to do about that pesky food safety legislation.

It appears that President Barack Obama and Beltway Republicans have reached a compromise on the so-called Bush era tax rates. Obama, to be certain, took it on the chin, but it remains to be seen whether Democrats will follow course. Here's the deal: the prez gave up his fight to more aggressively tax the rich and agreed to a two-year extension of all the current federal tax rates, plus a temporary 35 percent estate tax rate with a $5 million cap and a 2 percent decreases in payroll taxes. In return, the GOP leadership has expressed a willingness to support a provision allowing unemployment checks for individuals at the present 99-week cut off limit for a period of 13 months only - this means, for the first time in U.S. history, unemployed citizens will be able to collect a check from the feds for three consecutive years without having to enter the workforce. Both sides of the aisle call it a true compromise.

Now that the tax rate debate is settled - hopefully - lawmakers can begin focusing on what to do about that pesky food safety legislation. The Senate passed S. 510, the Food Safety Modernization Act, earlier this month, but it included a fee, which must constitutionally originate in the lower chamber. Lawmakers have a number of options, yet it seems likely that the policy package will have to be re-routed through the Senate and then sent back to the House for consideration. There's a great deal at stake for Louisiana. For example, the Senate-passed bill requires, among other things, that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration conduct public health and cost assessments before issuing any new regulations affecting the processing and consumption of raw oysters.

It also includes language to prohibit "port shopping," which is a tactic foreign seafood producers use to find ports with loose safety requirements to sell seafood that would otherwise be rejected. Farmers and other agriculture interests are on the hook, too, since the bill creates new standards for harvesting fruits and vegetables; expands the FDA's recall authority; increases facility inspections; requires more testing; and strengthens oversight on imports. State Agriculture and Forestry Commissioner Mike Strain says the Senate food safety bill is "a major advance toward safeguarding the nation's food supply" and added that Louisiana will be ready for the news regs - if and when they're adopted. "As much as I dislike additional red tape for farmers to navigate, I believe these new measures will provide the framework to strengthen our food supply chain and prevent adulterated and contaminated food from entering the markets in the future," Strain says.