October 23, 2009

Slow-walking Food Safety Reform
For those imagining that the recent food safety scares might have lit a fire under the Senate to get going a fix our broken food safety system, yesterday's Senate HELP Committee hearing will set you straight. You can see for yourself, but the WSJ spells it out for us: FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg all but begged the committee to strengthen the Senate version of the food safety bill:

FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg told the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee that the agency wants the Senate bill to look more like legislation the House approved July. She noted that the House bill would give the FDA easy access to food-production records during routine inspections and would help fund the agency by charging food companies registration fees of $500 a year per facility.

"It is the case that our mandate and responsibilities have far outstripped our resources," Dr. Hamburg said. "We are concerned that the [Senate] bill does not provide a guaranteed consistent funding source to help FDA fulfill its new responsibilities."

The rest of the hearing involved the usual suspects, consumer advocate Caroline Smith DeWaal from the Center of Science in the Public Interest (and still in the running apparently for the top USDA food safety job -- I wonder if that fact affected her testimony? Hmmm...), two industry reps who are frequent testifiers on food safety and a state food safety commissioner.

Nothing of any interest happened here, though Committee Chairman Tom Harkin did suggest he may manage to get the bill out of committee before the end of the year -- whether it will be strengthened or weakened was left unsaid.

Of course, the 900 lb gorilla steer in the hearing room was the fact that neither the food safety bill under consideration in the Senate nor the one already passed by the House will deal in any meaningful way with meat. Beef may be "what's for dinner"®, but it's not on the legislative table.

It's true that Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand has introduced a "supplement" to the food safety bill that would mandate ground beef testing, increase testing of imports and improve meat-related recalls. Still, even that modest reform proposal would have to make it through the Senate Agriculture Committee. And Ag Chair Sen. Blanche Lincoln isn't going to allow real reform to escape her committee alive. Nor will her counterpart in the House, Rep. Collin Peterson cooperate, by the way -- which is why there's no serious effort in that chamber and why most of the meat-related provisions were stripped out of the House-passed food safety bill in the first place. No one wanted to let Peterson get his hands on the bill. It's possible that one or another bit of reform will sneak into unrelated bills -- but wholesale fixes to our system of processing meat? Sorry. No can do.

The FDA-oriented version of the food safety bill which was the subject of yesterday's hearing will likely pass in some form -- and that would be an improvement, especially considering it would be the first overhaul of our food safety laws since the Great Depression.

But the failure of real reform to our livestock practices (not to mention the leadership vacuum at the USDA) will increase the likelihood that the meat industry gets to move forward with its own holy grail of food safety -- irradiation. There are a few kinks to work out, of course, like the changes to color, smell and taste of irradiated meat. But I'm sure they'll come up with some neat injections or chemical bath to fix that, too. And irradiated meat will "safely" stay on store shelves for weeks! Ain't technology grand?

Did I mention that irradiating industrially-produced meat will be a lot cheaper than actually keeping pathogens out in the first place? It must have slipped my mind. As a result, it's hard not to wonder if this slow-walking of reform is intentional. I'm sure it's probably maybe I hope not. Sigh.

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