By Michael Doyle, McClatchy Newspapers
July 31, 2009
WASHINGTON – — The House of Representatives on Thursday approved a wide-ranging food-safety bill by a 283-142 margin.
The 159-page Food Safety Enhancement Act could affect every facet of the nation’s food supply chain, from farm to grocery store.
The Senate is working to pass its own version, but extended debate could delay the process. House and Senate negotiators would then have to work out their differences.
Questions about the legislation remain; some answers are below.
Q: What does the bill do?
A: It raises money, boosts inspections and empowers the federal Food and Drug Administration.
The legislation assesses new $500-a-year fees on food processors and other facilities that must register every year; the fee would increase annually with inflation. These levies will raise about $1.5 billion over five years and combine with an estimated $2 billion provided by Congress.
The money, in part, will pay for inspections and monitoring of about 360,000 domestic and foreign food facilities. The FDA also gains new clout, including subpoena power, mandatory food recall authority and the ability to impose a regional quarantine if officials have a "reasonable belief" that there’s a risk of death or serious illness.
Q: Would there be a lot of paperwork involved?
A: Yes, for some. Within 18 months after the bill becomes law, food facility operators would have to prepare a food-safety plan. The plans must identify potential hazards and prevention techniques and describe plans for recalling and tracing dangerous foods, among other things. Facilities must also maintain records concerning the "production, manufacture, processing, packing, transporting, distribution, receipt, holding or importation" of foods, and make these available to the FDA upon request.
Q: What doesn’t the food-safety bill cover?
A: Farms, in part. The bill, despite being about food, excludes in some cases the places where food is actually produced. It exempts wineries as well as farms and facilities already regulated by the Agriculture Department under rules that govern meat, poultry and eggs. Small businesses, moreover, will have longer to comply.
Q: Does the bill specify new food-safety standards?
A: Not yet. The bill orders federal agencies to prepare certain food-safety regulations. But these highly detailed regulations will be years in the making.
Notably, the bill gives the Department of Health and Human Services three years to establish "science-based standards for the safe growing, harvesting, packing, sorting, transporting and holding of raw agricultural commodities." These standards could cover everything from manure control and employee hygiene to water quality.
Federal officials must also prepare rules establishing a tracing system to "identify each person who grows, produces, manufacturers, processes, packs, transports, holds or sells" dangerous food.
Q: What do farmers think about this?
A: It depends on the farmer. The California Farm Bureau Federation opposes the bill, citing in part the possibility that farmers will pay stiff $20,000-a-day penalties for record-keeping violations. The California farm organization also raises concerns about the FDA’s new quarantine and recall powers.
The United Fresh Produce Association supports the bill. The American Farm Bureau Federation, the USA Rice Federation and the National Pork Producers Council likewise have either dropped their previous opposition or now support the bill outright.