Food-Safety Bill Could Complicate Product Imports

A food-safety bill introduced this year by Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., could gain traction next year and affect food imports, according to a presentation here last week. The Food and Drug Safety Act of 2007 (H.R. 3610) is currently in the House Energy and Commerce Committee, and no action is expected on it this year, according to Robert Hahn, a principal in Olsson, Frank and Weeda, a

NEWARK, N.J. — A food-safety bill introduced this year by Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., could gain traction next year and affect food imports, according to a presentation here last week.

The Food and Drug Safety Act of 2007 (H.R. 3610) is currently in the House Energy and Commerce Committee, and no action is expected on it this year, according to Robert Hahn, a principal in Olsson, Frank and Weeda, a Washington law firm. The seminar, called “Importing Food Into the U.S.,” was presented at the Newark Airport Marriott Hotel here by The Food Institute, Elmwood Park, N.J., which is affiliated with the law firm.

“There have been several food-safety initiatives in Congress, but we think this one is the most likely to make it through to enactment,” Hahn said.

The bill would require foreign facilities that export food to the U.S. to obtain certification from the Food and Drug Administration, beginning five years after enactment. Dingell's bill would also expand the authority of the FDA to give the agency mandatory recall authority.

Among the more controversial aspects of the bill is a provision that would restrict food imports to major port cities that currently house an FDA testing lab — eliminating all cities along the U.S.-Mexico border and most cities along the border with Canada.

“We are hoping that that provision will not get passed,” Hahn said.

The bill would also require the FDA to issue regulations requiring country-of-origin labeling for all foods.

Hahn also noted that certain provisions in other food-safety bills could end up being incorporated into H.R. 3610, such as a proposal to give the FDA the authority to level civil fines and another that would require the FDA to audit foreign governments and foreign food establishments that export foods to the U.S.

In other matters discussed at the seminar, David Durkin, also a principal at Olsson, Frank and Weeda, said he expects that mandatory country-of-origin labeling for fresh fruits and vegetables would eventually come about through compromises between retailers and farmers.

“Retailers and farmers are currently working toward a deal that would include in-store signage,” Durkin said. “It's very likely that 80% of the top 20 products will have to bear country-of-origin labeling, and [the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Marketing Service] will inspect occasionally to ensure compliance.”

The country-of-origin issue is currently part of the Farm Bill, which has been languishing in Congress. It is scheduled to expire Dec. 31. Congress in 2002 amended the Agricultural Marketing Act to require country-of-origin labeling for beef, pork, lamb, fresh produce, fish and shellfish, although to date, the USDA has only issued regulations for fish and shellfish.

Because of the large number of incidents of produce contamination in recent years, the FDA is also considering expanding its Good Agricultural Practices guidelines for produce farms to cover specific commodities, Hahn said.