WASHINGTON — The food industry welcomes efforts to strengthen the Food and Drug Administration's ability to enhance food safety, but remains wary of the legislation that Congress is promulgating to support it.
Just last week Grocery Manufacturers Association here criticized some aspects of draft legislation introduced by Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, that proposes new fees to fund increased government inspections of food-manufacturing facilities.
“We are concerned that the draft legislation released by Chairman Waxman proposes significant new fees on food companies and ultimately consumers at a time when they can least afford it and in the face of an unprecedented increase in appropriated funding for FDA food safety activities,” Pamela G. Bailey, president and chief executive officer, GMA, said in a prepared statement. “In addition, like many consumer groups, we are concerned about the inherent conflict of interest created by asking industry to fund government inspections.”
She noted that GMA “shares the broad goals” of the draft legislation and seeks to work with the FDA on measures that focus on prevention of food-borne illness outbreaks.
The draft legislation, dubbed the Food Safety Enhancement Act, calls for all food-manufacturing facilities to pay an annual registration fee of $1,000, beginning in 2010, to fund increased inspections.
Kathy Means, vice president of government relations and public affairs at the Produce Marketing Association, Newark, Del., told SN last week that while PMA supports a stronger FDA, the association is opposed to some “user fees” that have been proposed in Congress. She pointed out that the Waxman proposal does not require food facilities to pay fees per inspection, which she termed an improvement over previous proposals.
“In general, food safety is a public good, and it should be paid for out of public funds,” she said.
The proposal's counterpart in the Senate, introduced by Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., does not require an annual registration fee to fund inspections, although it does allow for fees to be levied for recalls or for re-inspections.
PMA is still evaluating the specific proposals in the Waxman bill, which Means said would likely be the major piece of food-safety legislation that moves forward in the House, replacing previous House proposals.
Thomas Wenning, executive vice president, National Grocers Association, Arlington, Va., said independent supermarkets support many elements of the Waxman proposal, including measures to enhance the safety of imported foods and to grant the FDA mandatory-recall authority. He said NGA was still evaluating the assessment of registration fees.
“[The Waxman draft] certainly has concepts that we have supported, and it is something that is recognized as a step forward,” he said, although he noted that NGA is “still more favorably included toward the Durbin bill in the Senate.”
In addition to the $1,000 annual registration fees, the Waxman proposal also calls for more frequent inspections: High-risk facilities would be inspected at least once every six to 18 months; low risk facilities would be inspected at least once every 18 months to three years; and warehouses that store food would be inspected at least once every three to four years.
“Inspections being risk-based is important, so that folks who have not had a problem are not getting increased inspections,” the PMA's Means told SN. “We have to prioritize use of resources, and we have to do that based on risk.”
One potential problem for the industry in the Waxman legislation pertains to traceability. Wording in the draft calls for all members of the supply chain to maintain a “full pedigree” of products that they handle, and also requires the creation of an “interoperable record” to facilitate traceback of suspect product.
“We need to see what ‘full pedigree’ means,” said Means of PMA, noting that keeping records of subsequent resellers might not be practical. She noted that she believes the Produce Traceability Initiative, an industry-generated technology solution, would provide adequate traceback.
Wenning said NGA was concerned about the “interoperable record” language if it imposes a “burden in terms of time and investment in technology” on member companies.
Jennifer Hatcher, group vice president of government affairs at Food Marketing Institute, said FMI was “pleased that [the sponsors] have recognized that in order to improve our food safety system we must focus on the use of preventive measures along the entire supply chain.”
She said FMI would continue to work on the issue, recommending the “innovative food safety systems already in use by retailers.”