Food has become a major topic of discussion on Capitol Hill, and it's not about which receptions have the biggest shrimp, or why the tourists go so crazy over the Senate's bean soup.
Increasingly, food safety and nutrition issues are commanding attention in Congressional hearing rooms. Speaking about the last session of Congress, Peter Barton Hutt, a partner at Covington & Burling who has been involved in food regulation for the past 30 years, said that he doesn't remember a time when more food legislation was "on the table."
While only one major food bill was passed by the 101st Congress -- mandatory nutrition labeling on food products -- observers are predicting that last year was only the beginning. There will be continued interest and activity on Capitol Hill for food issues, they project.
Why? Hutt said it's a paradox that as our food supply gets safer, we get more worried about it. The reason, Hutt believes, is that as science discovers more and as the media informs the public about those findings, people become more concerned.
Ellen Haas, director of Public Voice for Food and Health Policy, a consumer organization, said that "after a decade of ignoring consumers' nutrition and food safety needs, Congress has awakened to the fact of the urgency of the matter." There are "serious gaps" in government protection that have been festering, causing unnecessary risks to consumers, Haas contended.
Whatever the reasons, here are some of the food issues that the 102nd Congress will most likely be tackling -- or retackling:
Food safety -- There is broad agreement that inconsistent laws regulating cancer-causing substances in processed and raw foods need to be more compatible.
Currently, the Food and Drug Administration administers the 1958 Delaney clause in the nation's primary food and drug law, which bars cancer-causing additives from processed foods, a zero-risk approach. On the other hand, the Environmental Protection Agency uses a risk-benefit formula that only applies to raw foods, permitting a limited amount of possibly carcinogenic pesticide residues. For the most part, EPA attempts to set tolerances using a guideline that the pesticide residue on raw foods can cause no more than one cancer in one million exposures over a lifetime. The calculation is based on extrapolations from animal feeding studies.
In 1987, the National Academy of Sciences proposed that a single "negligible risk" standard be established for assessing the cancer-causing dangers of pesticides in raw and processed foods. In the last session of Congress, Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) introduced legislation that would establish a single standard -- using one in a million as the official benchmark, and setting it into law.
In October of 1989, the Bush administration announced its own food safety initiative, but never pushed it. Although the Kennedy bill got out of committee, insiders say there was not a broad enough consensus or a high enough priority to move the bill to a floor vote. Congressional staffers for Waxman and Kennedy say the bills will be reintroduced shortly.
Unlike the EPA's current system -- supported by the administration's plan -- in which the agency weighs the economic benefits of a given pesticide against its health risks, the Kennedy-Waxman bill would have eliminated any consideration of monetary benefit. Chemical manufacturers and agricultural producers, not surprisingly, are opposed to the elimination of economic benefit; environmentalists and consumer groups support it.
Other contentious issues include whether the one-in-a-million standard should be written into law, or left to EPA to interpret based on the latest science; what type of scientific methodology should be used to arrive at the one-in-a-million standard; and whether the standard would preempt states from adopting more stringent laws.
Reauthorization of FIFRA -- Officially known as the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act, this is the law that EPA uses to register and regulate pesticides. One of the biggest issues that Congress will be discussing with FIFRA will be shortening the time period it takes to ban cancer-causing pesticides.
According to a House Agriculture committee staffer, the "Circle of Poison" issue will surface as well. This circle is created when U.S. manufacturers sell overseas pesticides that are unregistered in this country, which then can come back to haunt us on imported foods. The 1990 farm bill originally included a provision to prohibit the export of unregistered pesticides, but it was ultimately killed by the chemical industry and the administration. Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), chairman of the Senate Agriculture committee, plans to reintroduce "Circle of Poison" legislation early in the session.
Beefing Up FDA's Authority -- Compared to other federal agencies, FDA's enforcement powers are in sore need of updating. Observers are predicting a bill that would give the agency more autonomy, such as giving it access to food company records and the authority to issue subpoenas, assess civil penalties and detain adulterated foods. More efficient enforcement tools would also be in line with the agenda of the new FDA Commissioner, David Kessler, who envisions a stronger, empowered agency.
Mandatory fish inspection -- This issue received a lot of attention last year, with numerous bills surfacing in Congress. With the reintroduction of at least some of the bills in this session, the debate will resurface -- likely with the same roadblocks.
While there is a consensus on Capitol Hill that the country needs to improve fish inspection (unlike meat and poultry, there is no mandatory inspection of seafood), there is disagreement over which agency should administer the program, and how extensive it should be.
In September, the Senate passed legislation that would charge the Agriculture Department with inspecting fish. The Bush administration, however, threatened a veto if the Senate legislation was approved by the House. In the final days of Congress, the House passed a substantially different bill, giving FDA primary authority for inspection and limiting its scope. It effectively killed the measure since there was no time for reconciliation between the two bills.
On Tuesday, the National Academy of Sciences is releasing a report on seafood safety that may refocus the debate. One of its major conclusions is that the root of the problem lies with polluted waters. In addition, the study is expected to point out the difficulties in monitoring foreign waters. Approximately 65 percent of the seafood eaten by Americans is imported.
Nutrition labeling of meat and poultry -- A gaping hole exists in the new food labeling law; it doesn't include meat and poultry products, which make up an estimated 20 percent of the food supply and an even higher percentage of fatty foods.
Meat and poultry were left out because the Congressional committees that drafted the labeling law don't have jurisdiction over the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which regulates those products.
Nevertheless, the USDA is announcing its own plan for labeling of meat and poultry sometime this month. The agency is expected to outline a more extensive labeling plan, but it is unclear whether it will be mandatory. In the past, USDA has been opposed to mandatory nutrition labeling.
There is also interest in Congress for introducing legislation that would increase or require labeling of meat and poultry products. Sen. Leahy, for example, has expressed interest.
In addition, there are other issues that have yet to be addressed by the new labeling law, such as how or whether food labels will be harmonized with food advertisements. The Federal Trade Commission regulates advertising, while FDA regulates food labels.
"We can have the most perfect labeling in the world, and if the advertising that goes along with it is misleading, I don't think we've accomplished the job," said Donna Porter, a specialist in life sciences at the Congressional Research Service who was the project director of the October National Academy of Sciences study on food labeling.
Standards for vitamin and mineral supplements -- In the wake of the L-tryptophan controversy, in which 27 people died from taking the amino acid supplement, there is increased interest in the regulation, or nonregulation, of supplements.
Even the supplement industry says it is in favor of some increased standards. J.B. Cordaro, president of the Council for Responsible Nutrition, which represents the supplement industry, said his group supports the idea of setting standards that would ensure the supplement breaks down in the body. A recent report by WRC-TV showed that 36 percent of the dietary supplements it tested didn't dissolve in enough time for the body to absorb them.
There are also no requirements that labels disclose the ingredients supplements are made from or list expiration dates and warning notices on products that may be dangerous taken in high dosages.
Rep. Waxman, chairman of the Subcommittee on Health and the Environment, and Sen. Howard Metzenbaum (D-Ohio), are interested in investigating supplement standards and other aspects of regulation when Congress reconvenes.