WASHINGTON — After lurching through Congress for more than a year, a sweeping food-safety bill widely supported by food retailers finally passed the Senate last week before getting tripped up by a technicality.
The Senate passed the Food and Drug Administration Food Safety Modernization Act by a 73-25 vote, but because the Senate version contains fees that are considered tax provisions, which are supposed to originate in the House, the bill has stalled while legislators try to figure out a way to bring it back through both chambers of Congress in the next few weeks.
The House had passed its version of the bill last year and had been expected to be able to quickly reconcile the two versions, but then the snafu was found. A misunderstanding among Congressional floor staffers reportedly caused the mistake.
“I'm an optimist,” said Jennifer Hatcher, group vice president, government relations, Food Marketing Institute. “There are a lot of people saying the bill is dead, but there has not been another piece of legislation this year that I can remember that had 73 votes, and I don't think you can do that and then not come out with a victory at the end of the session.”
The $1.4 billion bill, S. 510, expands the powers of the FDA to inspect farms and food-processing facilities and to order product recalls, among other changes that focus on the prevention of outbreaks of foodborne illness and adopt a risk-based approach. It has had mixed support in the food industry overall, and some groups have come out against it after a last-minute exemption was added for very small producers.
The legislation enjoyed bipartisan support in the wake of several large recalls.
Hatcher said the bill could end up being attached to another piece of House legislation and reintroduced, although the lame duck Congress has several other items on its plate in the coming weeks, including determining how to deal with the so-called Bush tax cuts that are set to expire at year-end. Compounding the issue is the fact that Senate Republicans have pledged to block any bills unrelated to tax cuts or spending reductions.
“They will need to think this out, and chart a course through for food safety,” Hatcher explained. “I think they need to get the tax cuts done first, then that will loosen up all this other stuff.”
The food-safety legislation could even potentially get combined somehow with an extension of the tax cuts, she added.
Both FMI and Grocery Manufacturers of America issued statements last week lauding the Senate's passage of the bill, before the technicality was discovered.
“With today's Senate vote, we have taken another important step toward modernizing America's food safety network and focusing on preventing problems before they occur, rather than just reacting to them,” said Leslie G. Sarasin, president and chief executive officer, FMI, on Nov. 30, when the bill first passed the Senate.
“This landmark legislation provides FDA with the resources and authorities the agency needs to help strengthen our nation's food safety system by making prevention the focus of our food safety strategies,” said Pamela G. Bailey, president and CEO, Grocery Manufacturers Association.