After nearly dying this weekend, proposed legislation that would give the FDA vastly increased powers to prevent food poisoning outbreaks appears to still have a chance of passing before the Christmas break.
On Sunday, the U.S. Senate voted yet again to approve the Food Safety Modernization Act (S. 510), after removing tax provisions that have to originate in the House of Representatives, according to congressional rules. Supporters of the bill say they are still trying to get it passed by the House without a conference and signed by President Barack Obama before the end of the session.
It is unclear whether the bill will be passed before Christmas, as some GOP leaders have objected to trying to rush a new version of the bill through at the 11th hour. However, the bill has passed both the Senate and House recently with bipartisan votes in both chambers. Lawmakers have been trying to leap a number of procedural hurdles to get the bill passed for the last two months.
Provisions in the bill include a schedule to inspect 50,000 foreign and domestic food production facilities by 2015 by either the FDA or state, federal or local agencies acting on the FDA’s behalf. In the first year alone, the FDA would inspect 600 foreign facilities, an area where the agency has performed poorly in the past. That number would double each year for five years.
Another major provision would give the FDA the power to order direct recalls of food suspected of being contaminated, greatly reducing the current bar federal regulators have to meet to require a recall. Currently, the FDA relies mostly on food manufacturers to voluntarily recall contaminated food from shelves.
The bill has received wide support from the food industry, although smaller producers have complained that the bill may put them at a disadvantage to larger companies. Although the bill has enjoyed bipartisan support, there are some Republicans who believe the bill will be too much of a burden on growers and food producers, and fear that the FDA will become “trigger happy” with its newfound recall power.
There are approximately 76 million foodborne illnesses each year in the United States, according to a report released in June, “Enhancing Food Safety: The Role of the Food and Drug Administration,” which was requested by Congress. Those illnesses cause more than 300,000 hospitalizations and 5,000 deaths annually.
For the FDA to properly regulate an estimated 80% of the nation’s food supply, the agency’s food safety departments need to be restructured to fit a risk-based approach that coordinates data and expertise to quickly find the weak links in the food production and distribution chains where contamination and other problems are most likely to occur, analysts said in the report. Then the agency would be able to quickly and efficiently target the problem areas with the necessary resources and increase its chances of catching dangerous, and sometimes deadly, food outbreaks before they occur.
The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimates that the new bill would cost $1.4 billion over five years. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that foodborne illnesses cost the country $152 billion annually.
The bill was propelled to the forefront of the Senate’s agenda following a national egg recall that federal investigators estimate sickened about 1,500 people with salmonella. One of the egg farms implicated in the outbreak had a long history of FDA violations.