On Wednesday, a Senate committee unanimously approved a sweeping overhaul of the Food and Drug Administration’s food safety system.
The proposed legislation is similar to the measure passed by the House this summer, as it significantly increases the FDA’s regulatory powers and allows the agency to directly order a food recall, rather than merely requesting that a food manufacturer institute one. In addition, the Senate version of the bill includes whistle-blower protections, unspecified grants to states to improve food safety programs, and requirements for organic agricultural standards and other factors to be included in government food safety rules.
Lawmakers have been prompted to action by recent high-profile outbreaks of food-borne illnesses, which have underscored the increasing risks associated with the nation’s food supply chain. As incredible as it sounds, statistics from the federal government show that food illnesses now sicken one in four Americans and kill 5,000 each year. Of course, the entire food industry suffers from these outbreaks, too, losing not only precious consumer confidence, but billions of dollars in sales and legal costs, as well.
At the moment, though, healthcare is the top legislative priority, and it’s not likely that this measure will go to the Senate floor before early 2010.
Plus, there is ongoing debate on how to pay for all the expanded product tracking and inspections included in these bills. The house version levies a $500 annual fee on food processing facilities. But, Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, and Sen. Michael B. Enzi (R-Wyo.), the committee’s ranking Republican, are opposed to imposing user fees on the food industry.
This legislation represents the first major changes to food safety laws in 70 years and will have an impact on virtually all aspects of the food supply chain.
If you’re wondering whether or not your suppliers will be impacted by the new regulations and the $500 annual fee that’s part of the House version, see this excellent Q&A in the Chicago Tribune.