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Congress Slow to Act on Food Safety, Despite Outbreaks and Frequent Warnings

Calls to overhaul a broken food safety system haven't yet resulted in broad reform. Will half a billion recalled eggs do the trick?

Years before last week’s recall of more than half a billion salmonella-contaminated eggs, a government watchdog report said federal oversight of food safety is a “high-risk area,” noting that responsibility for food safety is fragmented among at least 15 agencies [PDF].

That same report, from 2007, noted that expenditures between the two main agencies—the Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture—showed the FDA holding the short end of the stick.

From the report:

For example, the majority of federal expenditures for food safety inspection were directed toward USDA’s programs for ensuring the safety of meat, poultry, and egg products; however, USDA is responsible for regulating only about 20 percent of the food supply. In contrast, FDA, which is responsible for regulating about 80 percent of the food supply, accounted for only about 24 percent of expenditures.

The report also noted that food recalls are voluntary and neither the FDA nor the USDA have the authority to order them—except for the FDA’s authority to force a recall of infant formula. The report proposed that Congress enact an overhaul and, in particular, give these agencies the authority to order food recalls.

Three years later, at the request of Congress, the Institute of Medicine and the National Research Council produced a 500-page report—another document saying much the same thing. It, too, called for an overhaul of the food safety system and the Food and Drug Administration.

The report noted gaps in the system that were “most obvious in two areas—imported foods and on-farm food safety,” and noted again that the FDA lacked authority to order food recalls. It also noted that for on-farm regulation, the “FDA relies almost completely on voluntary guidance documents and initiatives” and “occasionally” inspects farms, “but almost exclusively in periods of crisis.”

FDA chief Margaret Hamburg, in Monday morning interviews on the major TV networks, hammered on her agency’s lack of regulatory power and called for the passage of a pending food safety bill that would give the FDA greater authority over imported food and the ability to force recalls. That bill—a version of which was passed by the House in 2009—has stalled in the Senate despite bipartisan support, as Politico noted.

Reuters pointed out in March that there were concerns that the bill—which provides more oversight of imported food—would affect trade. And industry lobbyists—namely, the Chamber of Commerce and the Grocery Manufacturers Assocation—also played their part in delaying the bill by fighting over a single amendment. Here’s what The Washington Post reported about the fight in April:

The food industry and major business groups, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, are threatening to withdraw support for a long-pending bill to improve food safety, saying they are upset by a proposed amendment that would ban bisphenol-A, a controversial chemical, from food and beverage containers.

A compromise was still being worked out earlier this month by the Senate health panel, The Hill noted, and the amendment banning BPA in food and beverage containers was left out. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., who inserted the original amendment, has said she will offer another that bans the chemical from baby bottles, baby food and infant formula.

The Senate legislation was also the subject of lobbying efforts by at least 196 organizations, according to Those groups included such businesses as Dunkin’ Brands, Starbucks, Kraft, Nestle, Procter & Gamble, Yum! Brands (the parent company of Taco Bell, which was linked to a salmonella outbreak this summer), Cargill (which recently resolved an E. coli lawsuit), and ConAgra Foods (which recently recalled Marie Callender's frozen entrees after they were linked to a salmonella outbreak), according to Food Safety News.

The bill had also initially been opposed by smaller farms and the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, an advocacy group, until they won amendments allowing the FDA to grant small farming operations exemptions or modifications to new regulations.

The bill is expected to go up for a vote when the Senate returns in September.

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