Congress sends food safety bill to Obama

by Walter Pierce

Supported by both Louisiana senators, Ag Commissioner Mike Strain and the Southern Shrimp Alliance, the bill gives the FDA, among other things, broad new powers to police foreign seafood.

President Barack Obama is expected to endorse legislation backed by the domestic shrimp industry and others that would give the government more power than ever to establish and enforce food safety standards. Massive recalls, like the egg-driven salmonella outbreak that sickened more than 1,700 people this fall, helped push the bill past the finish line during Congress' final days.
The House and Senate put the finishing touches on the Food Safety Modernization Act last week and sent it to Obama for final consideration Wednesday. "With recent outbreaks of food-borne illness from common foods such as spinach, tomatoes, peanut butter, and cookie dough, the urgency of addressing this challenge could not be greater," says House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat.

While the bill, which empowers the Food and Drug Administration, can be interpreted as a last-minute victory for a Democrat-controlled Congress, both of Louisiana's senators got behind the effort with yea votes.

It was a different story in the House, where the state's only outgoing members - Reps. Joseph Cao, R-New Orleans, and Charlie Melancon, D-Napoleonville - missed the vote altogether. Melancon has represented the Acadiana region since 2005 and is leaving as Republicans prepare to take control of the lower chamber.

The rest of Louisiana's congressional delegation voted against the food safety bill, including Reps. Rodney Alexander, R-Quitman; Charles Boustany, R-Lafayette; Bill Cassidy, R-Baton Rouge; and John Fleming, R-Shreveport.

Conservatives largely opposed the bill with accusations of overreaching - it gives the FDA authority to issue mandatory recalls, increase inspections and utilize new investigation techniques. The Heritage Foundation, a conservative-leaning think-tank, devalued the bill completely in a recent study, opining, "Americans do not want and cannot afford yet more unnecessary regulation and expansion of government. This proposal constitutes a costly and ineffective answer to a manufactured crisis."

But closer to home, there are plenty of boosters. For instance, the Southern Shrimp Alliance has labeled the bill a "major step towards improving the Food and Drug Administration's practices with respect to imported seafood."

John Williams, executive director of the SSA, says the bill will allow state and local officials to act as an arm of the federal government to increase inspection and enforce safe seafood standards. It also includes new requirements for foreign food safety equivalence, foreign facility testing and increased penalties for violations. Overall, Williams says, it would "protect consumers and help level the playing field for U.S. shrimpers."

Vitter negotiated most of the shrimp-related provisions in the bill pending Obama's signature, based on another measure he had authored earlier in the current term. Vitter says he also included 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. It further requires that foreign importers follow "equivalence" standards to ensure that food safety processes meet FDA requirements.

Landrieu, meanwhile, unsuccessfully fought to tack on a massive amendment that would have forced the FDA to increase its testing of imported shrimp from less than 2 percent to 20 percent by 2015, among other requirements. But she did have a role in securing another rider that would impact yet one more seafood staple: The bill calls on the FDA to conduct public health and cost assessments before issuing any new regulations affecting the processing and consumption of raw oysters.

When the bill passed the Senate earlier this month, it likewise won praise from Louisiana Agriculture and Forestry Commissioner Mike Strain, who called it a "major advance towards safeguarding the nation's food supply." He said farmers and other agriculture interests would benefit from several provisions in the bill, including:

* Expanding the food recall authority of the FDA
* Establishing science-based minimum standards for safe production and harvesting of specific types of fresh fruits and vegetables
* Allocating additional funding for facility inspections and food imported into the United States based on their risk profiles and increases inspections of all facilities
* Requiring mandatory testing by federal laboratories or accredited non-federal laboratories
* Improving traceability of fresh fruits and vegetables in the event of a food-borne illness outbreak
* Setting up a pilot program to explore and evaluate methods for rapidly and effectively tracing processed foods to identify the source of an outbreak
* Establishing training and education programs for state, local, territorial and tribal food safety officials on regulatory responsibilities and polices
* Establishing stricter food safety controls on imported food
* Authorizing officials to refuse entry of imported food into the U.S. if permission to inspect the food facility is denied
* Determining if a foreign country can provide reasonable assurances that its food supply meets or exceeds U.S. food safety standards

"As much as I dislike additional red tape for farmers to navigate," Strain says, "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."

Obama is expected to take action on the bill in the coming days.