Reporting from Washington — A Senate committee on Wednesday unanimously approved a much-awaited overhaul of the Food and Drug Administration's food safety system, although it gave little hint of how it would pay for the sweeping changes.
The measure, like one passed in the House, would significantly upgrade the FDA's regulatory powers -- giving the agency the power to order a food recall instead of merely requesting that a producer institute one. In its version of the bill, the Senate panel added whistle-blower protections and unspecified grants to states to beef up food safety capabilities. It also would require the government to take into account organic agricultural standards and other factors when writing food safety rules.
Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, said the measure was not likely to go to the Senate floor before early next year because healthcare legislation was a higher priority.
The push for reform comes after a series food-borne illness outbreaks in recent years -- involving peanuts, jalapeno peppers, cookie dough, spinach and other items.
Harkin said he wanted to get cost estimates for the legislation from the Congressional Budget Office before deciding how to propose paying for the expanded regimen of product tracking and inspections. But both he and Sen. Michael B. Enzi (R-Wyo.), the committee's ranking Republican, spoke against levying user fees on the food industry.
"If this is something for public protection, it's something we all should pay for," Harkin said.
The House-approved food safety bill would cost an estimated $3.7 billion over five years, partly paid for by a $500 annual fee on food processing facilities.
A leading consumer advocacy group urged Harkin to reconsider his opposition to such fees.
If the food safety budget comes solely from appropriations, said Jean Halloran, director of food policy initiatives for Consumers Union, Congress might be tempted to cut it if a year or two goes by without significant food-caused illnesses.
"We feel like you need a dedicated revenue stream for this," Halloran said.
Scott Faber, vice president for federal affairs for the Grocery Manufacturers Assn., said his group -- which represents food, beverage and consumer products companies -- understood that the frequency of food facility inspections needed to be increased and was not necessarily opposed to user fees.
But the association, Faber said, would rather see such fees used for rebuilding the FDA's scientific research capacity because in the long run that is the best path to reducing outbreaks of illness.