Central Valley

Valley legislator helps push tougher food safety laws

WASHINGTON - California farmers and their congressional allies are reviving their efforts to dramatically revise food safety oversight.

Picking up from last year's effort, Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, on Thursday joined a Florida Republican in unveiling an industry-backed bill that would impose stricter safety requirements on imported foods. The bill would also extend nationwide some strict rules already applied in California and Florida.

"The last time our food safety laws were modernized, President Eisenhower was in office," Costa said at a sparsely attended Capitol Hill news conference Thursday. "A lot has changed, obviously."

The Western Growers Association and other industry groups strongly support the bill introduced by Costa and Rep. Adam Putnam, R-Fla. Growers lose money when consumers stop buying food because of safety fears.

The legislation would give the Food and Drug Administration its first-ever power to order recalls of potentially contaminated foods. Currently, these food recalls are voluntary. The bill would also give the FDA new authority to set production, harvesting and packaging standards for fruits and vegetables.

The bill does not cover meat or beef products, which are handled by the Agriculture Department.

The bill does not directly provide any additional staff or funding for the FDA, though investigators have called the agency undermanned for the task of overseeing nearly half-a-trillion dollars' worth of domestic and imported food annually.

The FDA's "food safety workload has increased in the past decade, while its food safety staff and funding have not kept pace," the Government Accountability Office noted last year.

The bill potentially reaches across borders, with a variety of measures designed to ensure foreign foods meet U.S. production standards. Fifteen percent of all food consumed in the United States is produced overseas, according to the Agriculture Department.

"As the world grows smaller, and as we see more and more imports come into the United States … we need to make sure that we are not simultaneously exposing the American consumer to additional risk," Putnam said. Even so, the so-called Safe Food Enforcement, Assessment, Standards and Targeting Act is not the only food safety reform bill planted on Capitol Hill this year, and it will have to fight for life. In some cases, introduced bills primarily stake out bargaining positions designed to shape rather than become the final product.

Last month, for instance, liberal Democrats reintroduced a familiar bill establishing a new Food Safety Administration to consolidate work now handled by multiple agencies. Similar Food Safety Administration proposals have been regularly introduced without success since June 1999.

The various food safety proposals often get at least a short-term boost from the latest contaminated food crisis. Most recently, nine people have died and more than 650 people have been sickened from eating Salmonella-tainted peanut products.

Last year, Costa and Putnam introduced their food safety bill in the wake of an incident in which 200-plus people grew sick and three died from eating California spinach contaminated by E. coli bacteria. The legislation then stalled after it was introduced last April.

"Food safety continues to be an issue, every time we have a scare, whether it's peanut butter or Mexican peppers," Costa said.

Potentially, this year's efforts could find a more congenial political environment. The Obama administration will play some kind of role, and consumer advocates are cheering the selection of Kathleen Merrigan as deputy agriculture secretary. On Capitol Hill, new committee chairmen such as Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, will serve as legislative gatekeepers.

Waxman displaced a previous chairman, Michigan Democrat John Dingell, who has written a comprehensive Food and Drug Administration reform package that also covers the FDA's drug jurisdiction. Potentially, the bill introduced by Costa and Putnam could be folded into or otherwise influence this larger bill.