Harkin: Food safety bill may not clear Senate this year

Soon after becoming the new chairman of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, Tom Harkin expressed hope that the Senate would approve a food safety bill this year. However, he was less optimistic about that timetable when speaking with a group of Iowans who came to Washington last week to lobby for passage of the bill.

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The Senate has been bogged down in the debate over health care reform, and Harkin said his staff is tied up working on other must-pass bills. He said he hoped to have the committee take up the bill in December, but he assured her the issue wouldn’t die.

“We’re going to get it done,” he said.

Recent food scares linked to peanut butter and other products have spurred interest in Congress in increasing the FDA’s authority. Michael Taylor, a senior adviser at the FDA, told the victims and their families that the agency was poised to tighten its regulation of foods if Congress would just pass the legislation. “The forces have come together,” he said. “Society is finally ready to deal with this problem.”

Speaking about food safety legislation last month,

Harkin said he expected the committee’s bill to be a modified version of legislation introduced by Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill. Like the House bill, Durbin’s legislation would give the Food and Drug Administration more authority over the 80 percent of the food supply – everything but meat and poultry – that the agency regulates. The administration would be required to inspect processors more often, and processors in turn would face new regulations for controlling against pathogens.

But the Durbin bill omits a key feature of the House-passed bill: a $500 fee on processors to offset the cost of increasing the administration’s budget.

Sustainable agriculture advocates have expressed concern about that $500 fee.

Scott Faber, a lobbyist for the Grocery Manufacturers Association, told Philip Brasher of the Des Moines Register that he thinks this bill has less than a 50/50 chance of getting through Congress. The Grocery Manufacturers Association supported the food safety bill the House approved in July, but Faber observed, “As we get closer and closer to the [2010] election it makes it harder to move legislation.”

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