WASHINGTON — Legislation granting the Food and Drug Administration new powers to oversee the nation's food supply has elbowed its way onto Congress' crammed calendar with bipartisan support and rare agreement between consumer groups and an industry stung by product recalls.
The legislation, sponsored by Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), would require the FDA to step up inspections of food facilities and to issue new rules to improve the quality of imported food and to combat contaminants in fresh produce. The measure also would give the agency authority to recall products on its own, instead of relying on industry cooperation.
"Hardly a week goes by that there isn't a report of an outbreak of food-borne illness or death in America," Durbin said. "The current system really just reacts to food illness. We have to have a system that is protective of consumers" by preventing outbreaks or nipping them in the bud.
The bill is slated for a committee hearing today even as lawmakers wrestle with the tasks of overhauling the healthcare system, writing new regulations for the financial services industry and shaping major measures on global warming and education.
The reason for a sense of urgency is evident from opinion polls. A July survey for the Pew Charitable Trusts found that nearly 90% of voters favored new food safety measures similar to those found in Durbin's bill and a slightly more expansive proposal that the House passed over the summer.
"There's broad public support. It would be a quick win for both parties," said Erik Olson, director of chemical and food safety programs in Pew's Health & Human Services Policy program. "This is a rare situation where the industry is shoulder to shoulder with consumers."
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that food-borne illness causes 325,000 hospitalizations and 5,000 deaths annually in the U.S.
Beyond hazards to health, the food industry has paid a hefty toll.
Growers and distributors lost an estimated $100 million in a 2008 recall of salmonella-tainted jalapeno peppers and tomatoes initially blamed for the outbreak, said Patrick Delaney, a spokesman for the United Fresh Produce Assn., which represents fruit and vegetable producers.
A similar amount was lost in a spinach recall two years earlier, he said.
A recall of peanut products early this year cost Kellogg Co. about $70 million.
One major question is how to pay for the legislation.
The cost of reforms in the House bill is estimated at $3.7 billion over five years, with $1.4 billion of that to come from a $500-per-facility fee on food makers.
Durbin said he doesn't yet have a price tag for his bill.
An indication of the breadth of support for reform is the list of co-sponsors on Durbin's bill. It includes five Republicans, including Sens. Saxby Chambliss and Johnny Isakson, both from Georgia, a state hard-hit by the peanut recall.
"This legislation affords regulators the authority they need to better identify vulnerabilities in our food supply while maintaining the high level of food safety most Americans enjoy and take for granted," Chambliss said in a statement.
Scott Faber, vice president of federal affairs for the Grocery Manufacturers Assn., a trade group that represents food makers, said the regulatory regime has been overwhelmed by the size and scale of a global food supply network, making an overhaul a compelling need.
"There are no obvious substantive or political roadblocks to passing food safety legislation this Congress," Faber said.
Funding for the reforms will be key for quick, early detection of sickness from tainted food, said Bill Marler, a Seattle attorney who specializes in representing victims of food-borne illness.
One little-noticed provision of both versions of the food safety bill requires the FDA to bolster the capabilities of local and state officials to spot illness outbreaks more promptly, Marler said.
"Assuming proper funding -- and that's a big assumption -- the focus on money flowing to state and local health departments would allow you to do more rapid surveillance," Marler said.
"They would have more information sooner, and illness and business disruption would be reduced."