Aimed at enhancing U.S. food safety after a series of high-profile product warnings and recalls, on July 30, the House passed the Food Safety Enhancement Act (HR 2749) by a vote of 283 to 142. If the Senate passes a similar bill, the federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA) will have expanded oversight and powers over food safety and food processing facilities will face increased inspections.

The bill’s passage was quickly followed by separate food safety-related announcements from the USDA and FDA. With an increasingly problematic strain of E. coli (O157:H7) appearing in some ground beef, the USDA said there will now be regular testing of meat trimmings, the main suspect of contamination. Some 600 meat processing plants – where inspectors already perform tests daily -- are expected to be impacted.

Meanwhile, the FDA said stricter, mandatory standards for growing, harvesting and processing fruits and vegetables are being developed. It’s expected that the new rules will take about two years to write.

Voluntary guidelines targeting tomatoes, melons and greens were also released. FDA personnel said many producers are already following similar procedures and shouldn’t have to make major adjustments.

As the House debated HR 2749, concerns mounted that, due to a new food trace-back system, small farms would be subject to massive paperwork and a $500 registration fee that will be used to pay for the stepped-up inspections. After revisions, Democrats now claim that small farms will be exempted from the fee and trace-back system.

Congressional Budget Office analysis shows the increased inspections would cost $2.2 billion over five years. The new fees are expected to bring in only $1.4 billion, which means Congress would have to find a way to make up for the shortfall.

There was pushback on the bill from some Republicans, who claimed the new rules would be onerous to farmers and provided the FDA with too much power.

Under the bill, FDA’s ability to pursue civil and criminal penalties would be bolstered. Also, instead of voluntary recalls of tainted food by suppliers, the FDA would have the authority to issue the recall itself. Further, the FDA could announce quarantines and block suspect food being disseminated.

Supporters of the House bill point to the need for a tightening of regulations. Chief among their arguments: statistics showing 25 percent of the U.S. population suffers from a food-borne illness annually and there are 5,000 fatalities. As a result, the food industry experiences billions of dollars in food recalls, legal fees and lost sales.

email: dbennett@farmpress.com