House passes bill giving FDA more oversight of food safety
August 3, 2009
Last week, the House of Representatives passed legislation to give the Food and Drug Administration more authority and resources to prevent and stop food-borne illnesses, in response to a string of outbreaks involving peanuts, spinach, hot peppers and other foods, reported by the Wall Street Journal. Farms and food facilities that are already regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture wouldn''t be subject to FDA oversight. Under the House bill, the FDA would be required to conduct more frequent inspections. It would have the authority to order recalls and tell companies how to keep records so contaminated products could be traced more easily. Most food companies also would be required to register with the agency and pay an annual $500 fee for each of their facilities. Changes already are afoot at the FDA. The agency is putting more emphasis on food safety and stepping up efforts to prevent outbreaks. FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg is expected to announce guidelines for the food industry aimed at preventing contamination of tomatoes, melons and leafy greens, soon. The FDA currently can''t make the guidelines mandatory, but the House legislation would give it explicit authority to do so. President Barack Obama ordered a complete review of the FDA earlier this year amid a nationwide salmonella outbreak linked to peanut butter. At the FDA, top food officials from different divisions meet each week to talk about food safety in the commissioner''s conference room in suburban Maryland. The meetings, initially held daily, helped identify areas in need of improvement. The FDA also hired a food-safety expert, Michael Taylor, to help revamp the food program, and Dr. Hamburg said she wants to establish a deputy commissioner''s position responsible for food safety. Beyond that, she said she wants to hire more food inspectors and train them to be more specialized. The one big question, she said, is money. The Congressional Budget Office said the House bill''s requirement for more frequent inspections and other enforcement steps would cost $2.2 billion over five years -- in addition to revenue that would be collected from the food companies'' registration fees. The Senate isn''t expected to act on similar legislation until later this year.