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Senate Panel Approves Bill to Expand FDA Powers

Senate Panel Approves Bill to Expand FDA Powers

Chicago Tribune

WASHINGTON – A Senate committee on Wednesday unanimously approved a much-awaited overhaul of the nation’s food safety laws, though it gave little hint of how it would pay for the sweeping but costly reform of the Food and Drug Administration’s system for protecting much of what the nation eats and drinks.

Lawmakers gave themselves some time to figure out the financing. Iowa Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin, chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, said there’s little chance the food bill will hit the Senate floor until early next year because health care legislation is a higher priority.

Harkin’s committee approved the legislation with only minor tweaks, including authorizing the federal government to pay for beefing up states’ food safety capabilities, adding whistle-blower protections and requiring the government to take into account organic standards and other factors in writing food safety rules.

Both the Senate bill and a parallel bill approved earlier by the House would significantly upgrade the FDA’s regulatory powers, for the first time empowering it to order a food recall on its own authority instead of merely requesting that a producer institute one.

But in other ways, the Senate measure, sponsored by Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., gives the FDA fewer powers and is considered friendlier to the food industry.

Impetus for reform came from a string of costly and sometimes fatal outbreaks of food-borne illness in recent years involving peanuts, jalapeno peppers, spinach and other foods.

Harkin told reporters he wants to get cost estimates for the legislation from the Congressional Budget Office before deciding how to propose paying for the expanded regimen of product tracking and inspections called for in the legislation.

Both he and Wyoming Sen. Mike Enzi, the committee’s ranking Republican, spoke against levying user fees on the food industry.

“If this is something for public protection, it’s something we all should pay for,” Harkin said.

The House-approved food safety bill would cost an estimated $3.7 billion over five years, partly paid for by a $500 annual fee on food processing facilities.

A leading consumer advocacy group urged Harkin to support such fees.

If the food safety budget comes only from appropriations, Congress will be tempted to cut it if time passes without significant outbreaks, said Jean Halloran of Consumers Union.