Tuesday, December 21, 2010

House passes food safety bill to send to Obama

By the CNN Wire Staff
December 21, 2010 -- Updated 2247 GMT (0647 HKT)

Washington (CNN) -- A major food safety bill that passed the House and Senate earlier this year before stalling because of a procedural problem won final approval Tuesday and now goes to President Barack Obama to be signed into law.

The bill, designed to increase government inspections of the food supply in the wake of recent deadly foodborne disease outbreaks, originally passed with wide support in both chambers after originating in the Senate. However, it needed approval again because it violated a constitutional requirement that bills that raise revenue be initiated in the House.
The Senate passed its version of the Food Safety Modernization Act on Sunday, and the House voted 215-144 for final approval on Tuesday in one of the final sessions of the lame-duck Congress.

The bill, which represents the most sweeping overhaul of the food safety system since 1938, allows for greater governmental regulation of the U.S. food system -- currently in the national spotlight for numerous egg and produce recalls.

Among its provisions, the bill gives the federal Food and Drug Administration the authority to issue direct recalls of foods that are suspected to be tainted, rather than relying on individual producers to issue recalls voluntarily.

Currently, the FDA can negotiate with companies, but has no power to enact a mandatory recall.

It also requires food producers to develop written food safety plans, accessible by the government in case of emergency.

Under the measure, the secretary of Health and Human Services would be required to create a food tracing system that would quickly focus on the source of contamination should an outbreak occur. It also requires food importers to verify the safety of all imported foods to make sure they are in accordance with U.S. food safety guidelines.

In the Senate version, an amendment sponsored by Democratic Sen. Jon Tester of Montana exempted relatively small-scale producers that sell most of their food directly to consumers within their state or within a 275-mile radius of where it was produced.

Tester had called his amendment a "win for anyone who eats food," noting the local food processors still would be responsible for demonstrating that they had identified potential hazards and were implementing preventive controls to address the hazards, or demonstrating to the FDA that they were in compliance with state or local food safety laws.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Back from the Dead: Food Safety Bill Passes Senate in Unexpected Last-Minute Move

ABC News’ Matthew Jaffe reports:

In an unexpected move, the Senate today passed a sweeping food safety bill by unanimous consent, sending the bill back for a vote in the House before it will move on to President Obama’s desk.

“Very very important for our country,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said this evening on the Senate floor. “Perfect legislation? No. But a broad broad step in the right direction. We haven’t done anything in this regard for more than a hundred years for our country. With all the changes in processing food, it’s so very important. I’ve spoken to the Speaker tonight and this will pass the House when they come back Monday night or Tuesday.”

The surprising development is only the latest bizarre twist for the measure. Just a few days ago the food safety bill was seen as dead on Capitol Hill, but the Senate this weekend modified it to resolve a revenue technicality and managed to pass it.

That revenue issue is key in the long bizarre story of the bill.

In July 2009 the House first passed the bill, aiming to prevent massive outbreaks of tainted food by giving the Food and Drug Administration the authority to order mandatory recalls and require more frequent inspections of high-risk food processing plants.

But the bill then languished in the Senate for 15 months in the face of opposition from Republicans who objected to it adding around $1.5 billion to the deficit.

Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., argued that the bill needed to be fully paid for and do a better job of addressing regulatory failures. However, in November the Senate finally passed the food safety bill.

Except for one problem.

A tax provision included in the Senate bill violated the revenue rule, so instead of getting sent to President Obama’s desk, the bill remained stuck in Congress.

The Senate then put the food safety bill into the massive $1.1 trillion year-end omnibus bill, giving supporters of the measure renewed hope that it might still get passed after all.

But no.

Last Thursday, Reid, in the face of widespread GOP opposition, decided to scrap the omnibus bill in favor of a short-term continuing resolution to fund the government into early 2011.

At that point the food safety bill was considered dead. Until Sunday’s surprising development in the Senate, that is.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

In Lame Duck Flux, Food Safety Bill All But Dead

Saturday morning update: Asked about the status of  the food safety bill during a morning press conference covered by C-Span, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) said: "The good news is it is not dead, the conversation is still alive on the floor of the Senate today."

Durbin said he is hopeful the measure can be included in "the wrap up" of the lame duck session.

Someone asked if he knew a Republican co-sponsor was saying it was dead, and Durbin replied: "I would have said the same thing an hour ago."
Friday the House and Senate approved a measure to keep the government bills paid through Tuesday, as Democrats and Republicans scrambled to come to a deal for a longer-term stop gap measure.

As the budget situation becomes more contentious, major food safety legislation, which was attached to spending measures that failed to come to fruition last week, seems all but dead.

"It's not going anywhere. It's dead," Sen. Tom Coburn, the bill's most outspoken opponent, told ABC News Friday.

A spokesman from Coburn's office confirmed to Food Safety News that the senator would object to attaching the "so-called food safety bill" to the continuing resolution. Coburn's opposition forced Senate Democrats to file cloture to advance the bill in November.

Key Democrats maintain they will work to include the bill--which easily passed the House and Senate, but got caught in a constitutional glitch--in the final agreement. 

"We are working with our Republican colleagues to include this in the continuing resolution," a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's (D-NV) told Food Safety News via email.

A spokeswoman from Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee Chairman Tom Harkin's (D-IA) office reiterated that Democrats had not ceded defeat yet.

"Chairman Harkin is making every effort to ensure that the bipartisan food safety bill is included in legislation that will be voted on before the end of the year," spokeswoman Justine Sessions said in an email. "We'll be able to send it to the President unless a Senator raises an objection to overhauling our food safety system for the first time in 70 years."

"This bill, which will create stronger protections against contaminated foods for American families, enjoys strong bipartisan support, and we hope that politics will not get in the way of good policy," added Sessions

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Purdue Scientists Develop a Nanoparticle with Antimicrobial Ability against Listeria

A team of scientists from Purdue University developed a nanoparticle which is important in lengthening the shelf life of foods susceptible to Listeria monocytogenes. The nanoparticle was derived by altering the surface of phytoglycogen, a carbohydrate found in sweet corn. Several forms of that nanoparticle have the ability to attract and release nisin, a food-based antimicrobial agent, that fights Listeria which is present in meats, dairy, and vegetables and can cause harmful effects to pregnant women, infants, adults, and those with weak immune systems.

"People have been using nisin for a number of years, but the problem has been that it is depleted quickly in a food system," said Arun Bhunia, a Purdue professor of food science who co-authored a paper with Yao on the findings in the early online version of the Journal of Controlled Release. "This nanoparticle is an improved way to deliver the antimicrobial properties of nisin for extended use."

Read more at http://www.purdue.edu/newsroom/research/2010/101207YaoNisin.html.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Vatican scientists see “moral imperative” in GMO

(3 December 2010 GMO Compass) In a statement released at the end of November 2010, forty international scientists including seven Vatican advisors have called for the relaxation of “excessive, unscientific regulations” applied to genetically modified (GM) crops. The foundation of the statement lies in a week-long closed meeting held in May 2009 at the Vatican.

The scientists were brought together by Ingo Potrykus, one of the 80 members of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences. The retired Professor of Plant Sciences at the Federal Institute of Technology (FIT) in Zurich developed what is known as ‘golden rice’, a bioengineered grain with enhanced levels of vitamin A to combat the childhood blindness that poses a problem in some developing countries in Asia.

Although an official endorsement of the statement has not been released, the Academy already had expressed provisional support for GM crops ten years ago and the seven Academy members present at the meeting included Chancellor Marcelo Sánchez Sorondo.

The statement consists of 31 articles. Citing the development of crops for “the public good”, its authors referred to the potential of newly-developed plants to reduce malnutrition and poverty while enhancing food security. Other advantages of GM crops would include increased independence from pesticides and herbicides as well as the development of new tools against global warming and other types of environmental damage linked to agriculture.

The scientists cited the “magnitude of challenges facing the world’s poor and undernourished” as “a matter of urgency” while pointing to current projects developing genetically improved tropical crops that will be “of direct benefit to the poor”. In the light of these considerations and of scientific findings, one may derive “...a moral imperative to make the benefits of GE [i.e. genetically engineered] technology available on a larger scale to poor and vulnerable populations”.

Specific routes to this goal would include a reassessment of the ten-year-old Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety that addresses potential environmental risks to regulate the movement of GM organisms between countries. According to the scientists, the risks in question have failed to materialise and the protocol contains regulatory hurdles that hinder the development of crops by anyone other than large multinational firms.

Dr Potrykus uses his own experience with golden rice as an example and states, “It took 10 years longer and $20 million more than a normal variety ...  future use of [such] technology for the poor totally depends on reform of regulation.”

House Passes Food Bill as Part of Spending Bill

Late Wednesday the House of Representatives passed on a 212-206 vote, a continuing resolution to fund the government through September 2011. Attached to the bill was the FDA Food Safety and Modernization Act, which would give the Food and Drug Administration more authority. The language of the food safety rider is nearly identical to the bill passed last week by the Senate. However that bill was deemed unconstitutional due to a fee included in it as any taxes or fees must originate in the House.

The controversial Tester-Hagan amendment, a provision added to the Senate bill to exempt small farms and producers under certain conditions, is part of the legislation going back to the Senate for consideration. It appears that the small farm exemptions will be a part of the legislation if it becomes law this year. United Fresh Senior Vice President Robert Guenther issued a statement expressing disappointment that the provision was included.

"The statutory enactment of non science-based exemptions would limit FDA's ability to assure consumers that all foods they purchase, whether at grocery stores, restaurants, farm markets, or elsewhere, have met the same food safety standards," Guenther said. "We fear that this profound error will come back to haunt the Congress, public health agencies, consumers and even those who thought they would benefit from food safety exemptions. While the food safety bill will do much good, it is highly regrettable that the House leadership failed to exercise its responsibility to engage with the Senate in a conference to fix these provisions."

According to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., the Senate will take up the bill in the next day or two.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Senate Passes Historic Food Safety Bill, Now What?

Senate Approves Food Safety Bill 73-25, But Road Ahead Looks Rocky:

In a rare demonstration of bipartisanship, the Senate passed the most sweeping food safety reform bill in seven decades Tuesday morning. Despite high tempers in the wake of a contentious cycle, the upper chamber voted 73-25 vote to approve S. 510, the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act, a bill that would increase the Food and Drug Administration's fractured oversight of an increasingly globalized food supply.

Though the bill's passage--lauded by the major food industry, consumer, and public health groups--follows a similar measure that passed the House with bipartisan support in July 2009, the road ahead for comprehensive food safety reform is uncertain.  With the clock running on the lame duck session, most advocates for the bill want to see the House take up the Senate version as soon as possible to get the legislation to President Obama's desk.

In a statement yesterday, Obama called on the House to act quickly on the legislation.  "I urge the House--which has previously passed legislation demonstrating its strong commitment to making our food supply safer--to act quickly on this critical bill, and I applaud the work that was done to ensure its broad bipartisan passage in the Senate."

Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA), a key proponent of the measure in the Senate, indicated before Thanksgiving that key leaders in the House agreed to take up the Senate version, but it is not clear that is the game plan for House leadership.  The House version of the bill requires far more frequent inspections, augments the cost of the bill with a flat $500 fee for each food facility, and does not contain a hard-fought amendment to exempt small farms and food producers from certain new regulations.

House lawmakers who worked tirelessly to get bipartisan support for their version in 2009 have been noncommittal about adopting the Senate version.

"The Senate bill makes improvements to FDA's existing authorities to ensure the safety of the American food supply just as the House bill does," Rep. John Dingell (D-MI), who has been working on food safety legislation for years, told Food Safety News yesterday.  "I commend my colleagues for their hard work over the past year and four months.  However, there are some remaining concerns with the final Senate legislation, but the Senate bill is a still a giant leap forward toward ensuring the safety of the American food supply."

"I look forward to discussing the Senate bill with my House colleagues and determining what the appropriate next steps should be to ensure that we provide the greatest protections for American's consumers," added Dingell.

To add to the uncertainty in the House, large produce industry groups, including the United Fresh Produce Association and the Produce Marking Association, are working feverishly to convince lawmakers that the final legislation should not include the small farm exemptions, which were recently adopted into the Senate bill at the urging of Sens. Jon Tester (D-MT and Kay Hagan (D-NC).

The Tester-Hagan amendment intends to protect small farmers and the burgeoning local food movement from cumbersome regulation.  The larger produce industry, which is in favor of broad safety requirements to help prevent dangerous and economically damaging foodborne illness outbreaks, has remained squarely against any blanket exemptions based solely on farm size or geography.

"We're pushing for a conference and for the removal of the Tester amendment.  We think there is time to do conference," Robert Guenther, executive vice president of public policy at United Fresh, told Food Safety News yesterday.  "[The amendment] fundamentally undermines the entire legislation, the rest of the bill is science- and risk-based."

Guenther said the industry would continue to push against the amendment, which he called "arbitrary" and "politically expedient."

Though disagreements remain, the prospect of a conference committee to iron out key differences is seriously in question with so many competing items on the Congressional agenda--including the Bush-era tax cuts and the defense reauthorization bill, which includes a provision to repeal the controversial "don't ask, don't tell" policy.

Casting further doubt on the bill's chances at becoming law before the new year, Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call reported late last night predicted the food safety bill will likely be sent back to the Senate because Democrats violated Article 1, Section 7 of the Constitution, which clearly states that revenue-raising provisions originate in the House.

According to Roll Call, Section 107 of S. 510, which allows for the collection of fees, has "ruffled the features of Ways and Means Democrats" who are expected to use a procedure known inside the beltway as "blue slipping" to block the legislation.

"We understand there is a blue slip problem, and we expect the House to assert its rights under the Constitution to be the place where revenue bills begin," a GOP aide told the paper.

If the House blue slips the bill, Senate Democrats would have to use precious floor time to go back through procedural votes to re-introduce an amended version of the bill because Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) would, as he did earlier this year, object to a unanimous consent agreement to limit debate on the bill.

Sen. Coburn remains the most outspoken opponent of the legislation, arguing that it does not address systemic problems with federal food safety oversight and is too costly. Coburn introduced a substitute bill on Tuesday that failed in a 36-62 vote.