House Calls for Closer Watch on Food Supply

By Lyndsey Layton
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 28, 2009

The nation's complex food supply chain would become more transparent, inspections of food facilities would become more frequent and manufacturers would be required to take steps aimed at preventing food-borne illnesses under legislation proposed yesterday by key House leaders who have pledged to modernize the food safety system.

The bill, introduced by Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.) and Rep. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.), would give the Food and Drug Administration broad new enforcement tools, including the authority to recall tainted food, the ability to "quarantine" suspect food, and the power to impose civil penalties and increased criminal sanctions on violators.

Among other things, the proposal would put greater responsibility on growers, manufacturers and food handlers by requiring them to identify contamination risks, document the steps they take to prevent them and provide those records to federal regulators. The legislation also would allow the FDA to require private laboratories used by food manufacturers to report the detection of pathogens in food products directly to the government.

"This is a major step forward," said Erik Olson, director of food and consumer product safety at the Pew Charitable Trusts. "This has really been needed for decades. We're still operating under a food and drug law signed by Teddy Roosevelt."

Consumers have grown increasingly alarmed by a rash of food safety problems in recent years, such as E. coli in spinach and salmonella in Mexican jalapeno peppers.

But it was the nationwide salmonella illness outbreak linked to peanut products late last year that gave reform efforts a serious push. The episode exposed weaknesses across all layers of the nation's food safety network and captured the attention of President Obama, who has proposed significant new staffing and funding for the FDA.

Many of the provisions in the bill address the deficiencies highlighted by the peanut case. Federal authorities said Peanut Corporation of America knowingly shipped tainted peanuts to manufacturers who used them as ingredients in thousands of consumer products. The contamination was linked to more than 900 illnesses and nine deaths in fall and winter, although federal officials say that tens of thousands more were probably sickened. The outbreak triggered the largest food recall in U.S. history.

Investigators found that Peanut Corporation of America's Georgia plant had not been inspected by federal officials in seven years, that the company was operating a sister plant in Texas without the knowledge of either state or federal officials, and that private laboratories used by the company found contamination on more than a half-dozen occasions but never reported it to regulators.

Regulators and the food industry had trouble quickly identifying the products that contained peanuts processed by the company. The bill would require all players in the food supply chain to maintain records so that a contaminated product could be quickly traced backward and forward in the supply chain.

The Grocery Manufacturers Association, which represents the food industry, supports much of the legislation but objects to a $1,000 annual registration fee that would be required of all food facilities to help pay for the FDA's increased oversight. The association also objects to some of the tracing requirements, saying they would create a financial burden.

A proposal to consolidate all food safety functions, including those performed by the Department of Agriculture, under a single agency has been circulating on Capitol Hill and has been a focus of a White House working group, but it was not addressed by the bill written by Waxman and Dingell.

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