Democrats Look at User Fees to Improve Food Safety

Democrats in Congress said yesterday that new user fees and other proposals would help give the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) much needed resources to improve <"">food safety.  Critics disagreed saying that these measures could do more harm than good.  The FDA is responsible for the vast majority—80 percent—of the U.S. food supply, mostly fruits, vegetables, and processed foods.

The FDA has faced intense criticism from lawmakers and consumer groups and has long been accused of being too passive in handling changes in the food supply, especially in the areas of recent increases in imports and growing consumer demand for fresh produce.    The move to increase food and drug protection, which was included in draft legislation introduced in the House of Representatives last week, follows a number of incidents including problems with U.S.-grown spinach, U.S.-made peanut butter, problems linked to contaminated ingredients made in China that were later used in pet food; and the recent tragedies over the blood thinner heparin.  “The agency is starved for resources and cannot meet its basic responsibility,” Representatie John Dingell, chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said at a hearing on the bill.  The measure, he said, “will focus on efforts to seek real legislative conclusions to what is, in fact, a public health crisis.”

The draft legislation was crafted by Dingell and other Democratic lawmakers and would require U.S. food manufacturers and those exporting goods to the U.S. to pay $2,000 for each facility they operate, would require country-of-origin labeling for produce and processed foods, and would mandate the FDA to inspect food plants and their food-safety plans every four years.  The FDA also would be given the authority to conduct mandatory recalls and the fee is expected to generate $600 million, which will more than double the FDA’s current food safety budget.

“Foodborne outbreaks and recalls in recent years have caused a dramatic loss in consumer confidence,” said Caroline Smith DeWall, a director of food safety at the nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest.  “While each stakeholder may differ on the particulars, the … act offers an unprecedented opportunity for Congress to pass strong legislation.”

Republican lawmakers, the FDA, and the food industry objected to parts of the legislation.  Stephen Sundlof, director of the FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, said the agency was concerned the draft legislation spreads too much funding and resources across a broader area of inspection instead of allowing FDA to target high-risk foods.  “We have limited resources and we want to use those … as judiciously as we can to target those products that we believe have the greatest potential to cause harm to public health,” Sundlof said.  Republican lawmakers and the Grocery Manufacturers Association also criticized parts of the measure saying that that while they supported efforts to improve food safety, they strongly opposed user fees.  Cal Dooley, president of the GMA, said the fees would lead to “$1 billion in taxes on food products, which will show up in increased costs at the grocery store shelves.”

The Bush administration issued a report last November that highlighted several of the changes proposed by Congress, including mandatory recall authority.

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