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Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Food Safety in the 111th Congress: H.R. 2749 and S. 510

Renée Johnson, Coordinator
Specialist in Agricultural Policy

Sarah A. Lister
Specialist in Public Health and Epidemiology

Erin D. Williams
Specialist in Public Health and Bioethics

Vanessa K. Burrows
Legislative Attorney

Harold F. Upton
Analyst in Natural Resources Policy

Jim Monke
Specialist in Agricultural Policy

American consumers spend more than $1 trillion on food each year. 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 of a number of microbial pathogens and other contaminants. At issue is whether food safety agencies have the resources, authority, and structural organization to safeguard the public, and whether they use resources effectively. Also at issue is whether federal food safety laws, first enacted in the early 1900s, have kept pace with the significant changes in the food production, processing, and marketing sectors since then.

In the 111
th Congress, comprehensive food safety legislation passed the House (H.R. 2749) in July 2009 and was reported out of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee (S. 510) in December 2009. Both the House and Senate 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 oversees most meat and poultry. The bills would generally expand or modify existing FDA authorities rather than create a new food safety structure or authorities.

Senate floor action has been held up by objections about the projected cost of the proposal, as well as attempts to further amend it. In August 2010, a group of Senate leaders released a substitute manager’s amendment to S. 510. A modified version of this amendment, which included additional amendments intended to satisfy the concerns of agricultural interests, was offered on the Senate floor on November 18, 2010 (S.Amdt. 4715). Further floor action is scheduled following the Thanksgiving recess. Senator Tom Harkin is reported to have stated that if the Senate is able to pass food safety legislation with bipartisan support, the House would likely agree to accept and pass the Senate version of the bill, so it can then be sent to President Obama.

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 infrequently visits food manufacturing and other facilities to check sanitary and other conditions. The proposed bills (in different ways) would require 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 institute them voluntarily. Major portions of the bills are devoted to increasing the scrutiny of food imports, which account for a growing 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. The House-passed bill and Senate amendment 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.

Date of Report: November 24, 2010
Number of Pages: 105
Order Number: R40443
Price: $29.95

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