Des Moines Register – Iowa (link no longer available)

Washington, D.C. – Toys were first. Food may be next on the agenda for Congress in a wave of government regulation.

Congress has overwhelmingly agreed to give the Consumer Product Safety Commission more money and authority to regulate children’s products and require third-party testing of toys.

Now, lawmakers are taking aim at the Food and Drug Administration. The agency regulates 80 percent of the food Americans eat but has only a fraction of the funding and the staff of the Agriculture Department, which regulates the other 20 percent, primarily meat.

Little is likely to get done this year – it’s too close to the election – but a food agency overhaul is likely to be high on the congressional agenda next year. The food industry, which once resisted increased regulation, has been hammered with one costly outbreak after another. The latest, involving a strain of salmonella bacteria, devastated the U.S. tomato industry before it was linked instead to Mexican-grown jalapeno peppers.

The agency itself is asking for more authority.

“You will see the food industry being supportive of government action,” said Bryan Silbermann, president of the Produce Marketing Association. “We’ve seen what’s happened over the last eight years of government inaction.”

Growing Republican support

As was the case with toy reform, key Republicans also are getting behind the idea of increasing government food regulation.

Three of the top four Republicans on the Senate committee that oversees the agency, Judd Gregg of New Hampshire, Lamar Alexander of Tennessee and Richard Burr of North Carolina, are cosponsoring a bill that aims to do for that agency what Congress did this year for the Consumer Product Safety Commission.

The bill, introduced by Illinois Democrat Richard Durbin, authorizes the food agency to set commodity-specific safety standards for produce and require importers to verify that their foods they’re bringing were produced according to U.S. rules.

The food administration also would be authorized to certify third-party inspections of domestic and foreign food facilities and would be empowered for the first time to require recalls of tainted products. Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Ia., is a bill cosponsor.

“There are parts of this bill that you couldn’t (previously) bring Republicans around to,” Durbin said, citing the recall authority as an example.

Republican Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa, who has criticized the agency’s regulation of prescription drugs, also said Congress is likely to do something about its oversight of food.

“It’s recognized in both political parties and recognized in food as well as pharmaceuticals that (the agency) needs an overhaul,” Grassley said. “It needs more money. It needs more inspectors.”

House involvement

A separate food agency overhaul bill is under development in the House.

The produce industry’s frustration with the current system spilled out at a recent hearing by the House Agriculture Committee on the salmonella outbreak.

Anthony DiMare, vice president of a family-run tomato company, told the committee that sales dropped 60 percent after tomatoes were initially fingered as the source of the outbreak. Operations were off 20 percent at the end of July. The outbreak was eventually traced to jalapenos.

“We don’t know how long it will take for consumer confidence in fresh tomatoes to rebound,” DiMare told the panel.

Tasks ahead

It’s not clear how much Congress is likely to do to change the way outbreaks are investigated. That job is divided among federal agencies as well as state and local authorities with varying levels of funding and expertise.

Durbin isn’t ready to talk about something as sweeping as unifying the food-safety system. That would mean merging various committee chairmen who now share jurisdiction over the food agency, Agriculture Department and other agencies that oversee food. Better to start with bolstering the food agency, he said.

“We have to allow this agency to mature into an effective 21st-century agency to protect families,” he said.

If the recent votes on the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act are any indication, Durbin should have allies. The Senate passed the bill, 89-3. The House vote was 424-1.

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