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Brasher: Hard nut to crack: Bill presses for food safety

A nationwide pistachio recall has prompted a bill by Senate Democratic leader Richard Durbin of Illinois to require more-stringent testing of food.

A nationwide pistachio recall has prompted a bill by Senate Democratic leader Richard Durbin of Illinois to require more-stringent testing of food.

What Jack-in-the-Box did for the safety of hamburgers could soon be done by peanuts and pistachios for the safety of most other foods.

A deadly E. coli outbreak traced to Jack-in-the-Box burgers in 1993 prompted the Clinton administration to slap unprecedented sanitation controls on the meat industry.

For the first time, meatpackers were required to develop systems to prevent their products from getting contaminated with harmful pathogens.

Those requirements still don’t apply to the 80 percent of the food supply regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (the Agriculture Department regulates meat only).

That seems increasingly likely to change this year in the wake of a series of nationwide food recalls, the latest examples involving peanut butter and pistachios. Support is building in Congress for shifting FDA’s priority from merely containing outbreaks to preventing them from happening in the first place.

“It is the first time you’ve had this consensus to make this really broad change,” said Michael Taylor, who implemented the increased regulation of the meat industry while with the USDA.

Taylor, now a professor of health policy at George Washington University, sees support building for an FDA overhaul proposed by assistant Senate Democratic leader Richard Durbin of Illinois.

Durbin’s legislation would for the first time force processors regulated by the FDA to write and follow hazard-control plans like to those now required of meatpackers.

The bill also would require the FDA to inspect plants more frequently – high-risk facilities would have to be checked at least once a year – and allow the agency to look at company records. Imported foods would have to meet U.S. safety standards for the first time.

Consumer activists and key industry groups back Durbin’s bill. They include the Grocery Manufacturers of America, which represents companies such as ConAgra, Kraft and Pepsico; and the Food Marketing Institute, which represents retail chains Wal-Mart, Hy-Vee and others.

“It is absolutely critical that manufacturers take a preventative approach by identifying and evaluating potential hazards, and by building food safety into the manufacturing process from the very beginning,” the food makers said in a letter endorsing Durbin’s bill.

The legislation also has the support of several Republicans, including the senior GOP member of the Senate Agriculture Committee, Saxby Chambliss of Georgia.

The Senate could turn to the bill yet this spring, once President Obama’s pick to run the FDA, Margaret Hamburg, is confirmed.

But Durbin’s legislation would leave a key question unanswered: How would the FDA pay for that increased level of inspection and other regulation? Other FDA-overhaul proposals would impose user fees on the food industry.

Durbin’s bill would nearly double the FDA’s food-safety staff from the current 2,800 to 5,000 by 2014, but the proposal leaves it up to congressional appropriators to find the extra money. (The FDA’s staff includes 1,900 inspectors and other field workers, compared with 8,000 at USDA.)

Although the food industry has generally resisted user fees, the grocery manufacturers haven’t closed the door.

GMA spokesman Scott Oppenshaw said in a statement that his group “would support user fees that help to improve food safety while also providing our industry with some benefit(s), and we are currently working with Congress to come up with the appropriate funding mechanisms.”

Durbin’s bill also would do nothing to consolidate the government’s fractured food-safety system – 15 different agencies are involved in regulating foods. A rival bill introduced in the House by Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., wouldn’t provide that consolidation, either. But it would move FDA’s food-safety functions to a new Food Safety Administration.

Without that move, food safety will remain less of a priority for the FDA than are drugs and medical devices, said Carol Tucker Forman of Consumer Federation of America. Still, she called Durbin’s legislation a “strong bill.”

Philip Brasher is a reporter for The Des Moines (Iowa) Register. E-mail: pbrasher@dmreg.com

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