Food Safety Bill Hits Procedural Roadblock

December 3, 2010

The Senate may have to vote again on a sweeping overhaul of U.S. food safety rules due to a procedural misstep, giving opponents a chance to rewrite or derail the bill, a top congressional aide said Thursday.

The legislation, inspired by massive food recalls including last summer’s recall of half-a-billion eggs due to salmonella, seemed on a fast track to signing by President Barack Obama after the Senate passed it in a bipartisan 73-25 vote Tuesday.

It hit a roadblock, however, when some members of the House of Representatives objected that the Senate bill created fees, a violation of a constitutional requirement that federal tax bills originate in the House.

The aide, speaking on condition of anonymity, said it could be next week before the problem was resolved.

Any bills that have not won final congressional approval when Congress adjourns, as it hopes in the middle of this month, would die.

“There are a few different options,” the aide said, suggesting the most likely solution was to attach the Senate language as an amendment to a House bill. Once cleared by the House, the package would go to the Senate for a final vote.

“We are confident that we can work with our House colleagues to find a path forward and get this bill to the president before the end of the year,” said an aide to Democratic Chairman Tom Harkin of the Senate Health Committee.

Harkin is a sponsor of the bill, which would be the largest change in food safety rules since the 1930s. It would empower the government to order a food recall and require foodmakers to write a plan to prevent in-plant contamination.

Pressure to overhaul the food safety system has grown after high-profile outbreaks of illness involving lettuce, peppers, eggs, peanuts, spinach and, most recently, eggs that have shaken public confidence in the safety of the food supply.

U.S. regulation of food safety is fragmented — split up among federal agencies — and consumer activists have complained that industry is given too much power to police itself. The bill would cover fruits, vegetables and processed foods but not meat.

Returning the bill to the Senate could inspire new objections and an effort to change it. Senator Tom Coburn, an Oklahoma Republican, slowed debate on the bill, saying it would expand federal regulation without improving food safety.

The United Fresh Produce Association, the largest trade group representing fruit and vegetable processors and retailers, said there was now an opportunity to fix “discrepancies” between the two versions of the bill. It objected particularly to Senate language allowing a softer regulatory hand for small farmers and processors who sold food directly to nearby customers.

The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, the largest cattle group in the country, said food regulations should be uniform “no matter the size of the producing entity.”

Advocates of small farmers said the Senate language was a common-sense recognition of the different scale of production and the limited finances of small producers.

(Reporting by Charles Abbott; Editing by Paul Simao)

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