GOP senator says he will hold up food safety bill as supporters give it a last-minute push

By Mary Clare Jalonick, AP
Wednesday, September 15, 2010

GOP senator says he will hold up food safety bill

WASHINGTON — A Republican senator is threatening to hold up food safety legislation that would give the Food and Drug Administration more power to prevent outbreaks, saying Democrats must find a way to pay for it.

Republican Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma says the bill, which has stalled in the Senate for more than a year, adds to the deficit and expands the power of an already troubled agency.

Advocates for the bill say it is crucial to strengthen the nation’s toothless food safety oversight and would help prevent large outbreaks of tainted food.

Coburn’s office said Wednesday the senator will object to bringing up the bill if his concerns aren’t addressed. His objections are a major blow to supporters’ chances of passing the legislation this year.

The legislation would give the agency more power to recall tainted products, require more inspections of food processing facilities and require producers to follow stricter standards for keeping food safe. Currently, the FDA does not have the authority to order a recall and must negotiate recalls with the affected producers. The agency rarely inspects many food facilities and farms, visiting some every decade or so and others not at all.

Supporters are scrambling to get the bill on the legislative calendar as Congress’ remaining work days are dwindling this year. Many were hoping that the recent recall of a half-billion eggs from two Iowa farms that sickened at least 1,500 people would give the bill momentum. The farms had never been inspected by the FDA, but the agency found rodents, seeping manure and even maggots when inspectors visited after the recall.

Caroline Smith DeWaal, food safety director for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, said Congress has allocated more money to the FDA in recent years but that the legislation would direct the agency how to spend it.

“Nobody wants to be standing in the way of solutions when another outbreak could occur,” she said.

The legislation has broad bipartisan backing in Congress and support from the food and restaurant industries.The House passed the bill over a year ago.

Coburn agrees that food safety needs a complete overhaul but says the current effort is disingenuous because there is not any money dedicated to it. The Congressional Budget Office estimates it will cost $1.4 billion.

“Without paying for this bill, at best we are just passing it for a press release, and at worst, we shackle the FDA with unfunded mandates,” his office said in a statement on his website.

Democrats say the legislation is a policy measure and would not immediately add to the deficit. They say the bill would be paid for in annual spending bills.

Justine Sessions, spokeswoman for Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa, the Democratic chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, said Coburn should bring up his concerns on the Senate floor.

Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said Tuesday that he had thought the bill was cleared but there was “still a Republican senator saying no.”

“We hope within the next 24 hours he will say yes,” Reid said. “That’s where we are.”

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