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Long Fight Continues for Food Safety Legislation

Long Fight Continues for Food Safety Legislation

Although President Obama signed the Food and Drug Administration Food Safety Modernization Act into law last week, both opponents and supporters should remain dug in for a long, tough fight.

Some Congressional leaders have indicated that they would seek to block or limit funding for the law, which is estimated to cost $1.4 billion over the next four years and has the support of Food Marketing Institute, Grocery Manufacturers Association and other industry groups. (See the story here.)

Even the Produce Marketing Association, which withdrew its support of the legislation at the last minute because of exemptions that were added for small farmers, said it remains in favor of much of what the law seeks to accomplish.

“Throughout the long legislative process, we worked diligently to inform key decision makers to help guide this legislation in a direction that will best serve consumer safety and our industry's food safety needs,” said Bryan Silbermann, PMA's president chief executive. “Although we don't support exemptions that were added to the bill, we are encouraged by the positive aspects and smart reforms that form the bill's backbone.”

PMA said it supports many of the law's provisions, including requirements that food companies have food safety plans in writing; its coverage of both U.S. and imported foods; the provision of mandatory recall authority to the FDA; and commodity-specific protocols for fresh produce.

Opponents have decried the law as emblematic of the “nanny state” of today's government, which one member of the House warned could put federal food inspectors at bake sales across the country.

Rep. Jack Kingston, R-Ga., said to be in line to become chairman of the agriculture subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee, was quoted last week as saying that the law is unnecessary because the nation's food supply is already “99.99% safe.”

But 3,000 deaths a year from foodborne illness, as trivial as that might be to the law's opponents, still seems like a pretty big number. The anti-government voices should also factor in the cost of the 128,000 hospitalizations caused by foodborne illness each year. Both numbers were recently calculated by the Centers for Disease Control.

Of course we don't know how many deaths or hospitalizations will be prevented by the new law, but a few hundred million dollars a year seems like a justifiable investment for the effort, especially since the industry groups most affected by the legislation have had the chance to shape it along the way, and will continue to have input on how it is implemented through the rule-making process.

Fiscal conservatives by all means should examine the law to make sure the funding is not being wasted, but the argument that the money is not needed because the U.S. food safety system is already the best in the world is weak, especially given the number of outbreaks that occur.

Opposition to the law seems to emanate primarily from the Tea Party and includes popular radio talk-show host Glen Beck. Those industry groups that have supported the legislation should take a deep breath and continue to out-shout such posturing.