House Energy and Commerce Committee chairman Henry Waxman certainly had his ducks in a row today, as a sweeping food safety bill, H.R. 2749, passed unanimously out of the committee. (CQ Politics and Reuters; thanks, Naomi!)
There will be lots more analysis in the coming days, but here’s what we’ve gathered thus far: In many respects, this bill is a vast improvement over the status quo. It requires high-risk food processing facilities to be inspected every 6-12 months (the Georgia peanut plant behind this spring’s record Salmonella outbreak had last been inspected by the FDA ten years ago), and it gives the FDA the teeth to require companies to recall contaminated products. (Under current law, the FDA can only ask nicely.) Don’t be surprised to see Big Food redouble its efforts to water down the strongest regulations on testing, reporting, and inspections.
There are also a lot of questions still to be answered, particularly around what the bill will mean for small food processors. The version that passed out of committee today requires all processors to pay a $500 fee to fund FDA inspections, which is projected to add $189 million to the FDA’s coffers. Small farm and local food groups are pushing to change that to a sliding scale fee, arguing that mega-processors could afford to pay more (and should, given their potential to sicken large numbers of people), while the $500 fee would present a big burden to, say, a mom-and-pop apple butter operation.
There’s also a section giving the FDA authority to set standards for “the safe growing and harvesting of produce,” which could have negative impacts on smaller or more biodiverse farms, depending on how they’re written. (And before you even ask, no – it would not regulate your backyard tomatoes.) See more background on produce standards, namely what Congress should avoid, in this post.
There’s a lot not written into the bill, too. Many of the details – who’s considered a processor, who’s exempt from having to draw up a food safety plan, how a traceability system might work – will be left up to the FDA during rulemaking.
Looks like public input as the bill moves forward will be critical to determining whether this bill can bite – and who. Russell Libby of the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association (MOFGA) does an eloquent roundup of the small farm wins and still-to-be-wons in the bill here.