Senator to try incremental overhaul of food safety laws

Senate Majority Whip Richard Durbin, D-Ill., is trying a gradual approach to overhauling the country's food safety system after acknowledging the food industry's lobbying against his comprehensive effort.

Durbin and House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee Chairwoman Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., have pushed since 1997 to combine a dozen or so agencies that regulate food safety efforts into a single agency.

Following a deadly incident involving tainted spinach last summer, a peanut butter recall as a result of salmonella contamination and a recent pet food recall, the pair saw momentum shifting toward their legislation.

But after introducing a bill to create the single agency, they scaled back their approach and sponsored legislation May 2 to give the Food and Drug Administration mandatory recall power.

The bill also would establish an early warning system to alert consumers to contaminated pet and human food and would permit fines to be levied against food companies that fail to report contamination. The bulk of the smaller bill -- minus mandatory recall authority -- was folded into the Senate bill passed this month to reauthorize FDA programs.

Durbin said in an interview last week that a single food safety agency is his goal, and he still plans to pursue mandatory recall authority, but he is taking a piecemeal approach that will include introduction of a bill after the Memorial Day recess that calls for FDA to charge user fees to fund food inspections.

Frustrated by two Chinese manufacturers' roles in the deadly pet food contamination, reports in other countries of Chinese toothpaste contaminated with a chemical used in antifreeze, and mislabeled monkfish from China that caused people to fall ill, Durbin wants FDA to sharply increase inspections of imports.

"I think we have reached a point unfortunately where 'made in China' is now a warning label in the United States," Durbin said.

FDA inspects about one out of every 100 Chinese food shipments -- not nearly enough, he added. The bill he plans to introduce would not single out China but would allow user fees to be negotiated through trade agreements with all countries. Durbin said user fees are much more likely to move this year than mandatory recall authority.

"What's blocking it [mandatory recall authority], of course, are the manufacturers and processors who don't want to give this authority to our government," Durbin said.

The food processing and sales industry spent about $12 million last year on lobbying, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. The most notable figure came from the Grocery Manufacturers of America, which hired nine different lobbying firms and spent $1.4 million on lobbying. GMA merged this year with the Food Products Association.

"Our feeling is to put additional enforcement authority on the industry is not the answer to improving the safety of the food supply," said Susan Stout, vice president of federal affairs for GMA/FPA. Stout explained food companies are concerned with their brands' reputations and customer confidence, so it benefits them to pull contaminated products as quickly as possible.

Stout said the jury is still out on user fees for inspections because the industry does not directly benefit from inspections, as opposed to user fees for speedier prescription drug and medical device product reviews, which benefit the industries that pay.

DeLauro has been a critic of user fees for healthcare products, contending they too closely tie FDA to industry. She has not decided on food inspection user fees, a spokeswoman said.

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