Central Valley

Valley congressman's bill would tighten standards on imported food

WASHINGTON -- Imported food would have to meet domestic U.S. safety standards under a bill Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, introduced today.

Wading into a food fight that has long stymied other lawmakers, Costa and a Republican colleague authored a bill they said would boost consumer confidence. At least in part, the legislation would lift other states to some food safety standards already imposed in Florida and California.

"We hope this will establish a gold standard for food safety, as well as a standard for our foreign food supplies," Costa said.

Speaking at a sparsely attended Capitol Hill news conference, Costa and Rep. Adam Putnam, R-Fla., described their 46-page bill as a "landmark" effort to rewrite food safety standards.

Costa is a member of the House Agriculture Committee and Putnam, a member of the extended House Republican leadership, is a rancher who represents a largely rural Florida district.

Backed by farm industry groups such as the Western Growers Association and United Fresh Produce Association, the new bill is for attention with a more aggressive effort introduced previously by other House Democrats. To some extent, Costa's new bill could be construed as the food industry's negotiating stance.

Thursday, the House Energy and Commerce Committee will discuss a broader food safety bill introduced by committee chairman, Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich. That would impose a new $2,000 inspection fee on U.S. food-producing facilities, doubling the Food and Drug Administration's food safety budget.

The Grocery Manufacturers Association, which supports Costa's bill, complained that Dingell's bill imposes "unfair food taxes." Costa's new bill includes smaller fees. Dingell's requires annual FDA inspections of food-handling plants. Costa's bill is narrower, requiring annual inspections only for those plants handling potentially "high-risk" crops like leafy greens and melons.

Dingell's bill would require country of origin labels for all produce and processed foods, which many in the agricultural industry have long resisted. Costa's bill lacks a labeling.

Both measures, though, place new emphasis on improving the safety of imported foods.

"The international nature of our food system requires a modernization of our controls for food safety," Putnam said.

Both bills, and others seeking to regulate food safety, have been introduced in the wake of high-profile contamination scares. These include, most notably, Salinas Valley leafy greens found to be tainted by e-coli bacteria in late 2006. The tainted spinach was blamed for at least three deaths and more than 200 sicknesses nationwide.

"We need to acknowledge that a better system of risk assessment and risk management is needed," Costa said.

In just this Congress, acronym-happy lawmakers have introduced bills crafted with names such as the Safe Food Act, Keeping America's Food Safe Act and the Ending Agricultural Threats: Safeguarding America's Food for Everyone (EAT SAFE) Act.

Food safety laws, though, have proven remarkably resistant to change. Costa himself noted that "the last time our food safety laws had major reforms, President Eisenhower was in office," and it is not clear how much momentum currently exists for action this year.

Among other provisions, Costa's bill would also:

* Give the FDA the authority to recall adulterated food from the supply chain. Currently, the federal agency must rely on voluntary industry action.

* Requires domestic and foreign companies selling food in the United States to conduct a safety risk analysis that identifies potential sources of contamination.

* Creates a voluntary program that gives expedited access to imports considered not to have any meaningful food safety risk.