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Thursday, August 19, 2010

Food Safety: Selected Issues and Bills in the111th Congress

Renée Johnson
Specialist in Agricultural Policy

The combined efforts of the food industry and government regulatory agencies often are credited with making the U.S. food supply among the safest in the world. Nonetheless, public health officials have estimated that each year in the United States, many millions of people become sick, and thousands die from foodborne illnesses caused by any one of a number of microbial pathogens and other contaminants. At issue is whether the current food safety system has the resources, authority, and structural organization to safeguard the health of American consumers, who spend more than $1 trillion on food each year. Also at issue is whether federal food safety laws, first enacted in the early 1900s, have kept pace with the significant changes that have occurred in the food production, processing, and marketing sectors since then. 

In the 111th Congress, several food safety bills have been introduced, and wide-ranging legislation (H.R. 2749) has passed the House. The Senate also has a comprehensive bill (S. 510). Both of these bills mainly focus on the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's (FDA's) food regulation rather than that of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA, which has oversight of most meat and poultry). The bills would use the agency and its existing FDA authorities rather than create a new food safety structure or authorities. H.R. 2749 is a revised version of H.R. 759, and was amended and approved by a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on June 10, 2009. The full committee further amended and approved H.R. 2749 on June 17, 2009, and the full House approved the bill on July 30, 2009, with a number of additional amendments intended to satisfy the concerns of agricultural interests. The Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee amended and approved S. 510 on November 18, and reported it December 18, 2009. Floor action is anticipated in 2010. In mid-July potential amendments to the bill were being discussed, aimed at addressing issues of continued interest to various Senators. A number of these could be proposed by floor managers when the full Senate takes up the measure. 

Food safety legislation is a response to a number of perceived problems with the current food safety system. For example, a growing consensus is that the FDA's current programs are not proactively designed to emphasize prevention, evaluate hazards, and focus inspection resources on areas of greatest risk to public health. Given its widely acknowledged funding and staffing constraints, and no explicit requirement on the frequency of inspections, the agency rarely visits food manufacturing and other facilities to check sanitary and other conditions. In response, the bills would require (although in different ways) food processing, manufacturing, shipping, and other regulated facilities to conduct an analysis of the most likely safety hazards and to design and implement risk-based controls to prevent them. The bills envision establishment of sciencebased "performance standards" for the most significant food contaminants. To help determine such risks and hazards, the bills propose improvement of foodborne illness surveillance systems. 

The bills seek to increase frequency of inspections, tighten record-keeping requirements, extend more oversight to certain farms, and mandate product recalls if a firm fails to do so voluntarily. Major portions of the bills are devoted to more scrutiny of food imports, which account for an increasing share of U.S. consumption; food import shipments would have to be accompanied by documentation that they can meet safety standards that are at least equivalent to U.S. standards. Such certifications might be provided by foreign governments or other so-called third parties accredited in advance; again, the major bills differ in how to accomplish these objectives. The bills have provisions for certifying or accrediting laboratories, including private laboratories, to conduct sampling and testing of food for various oversight purposes

Date of Report: July 30, 2010
Number of Pages: 38
Order Number: R40433
Price: $29.95

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