Food safety bill ready for Senate showdown

Matthew Boyle Investigative Reporter
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The Senate will debate the Food Safety Modernization Act on this coming Monday, deciding whether to give the Food and Drug Administration the authority to recall food products it suspects are infected.

The bill, expected to cost $1.4 billion over four years, has become a partisan point of contention in recent weeks, especially because Sen. Tom Coburn, R-OK, is going to use the bill as a way to judge where his colleagues stand on earmarks.

Coburn told The Daily Caller that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid wouldn’t allow him to hold a vote specifically on earmarks on the Senate floor, so instead he plans to check every senator’s stance on “the first bill that moves.” Reid’s staff did not return TheDC’s requests for comment.

Reid’s deputy, majority whip Dick Durbin, has been pushing the food bill forward since this summer’s salmonella egg scare, during which egg plants in Iowa were found to have been infected with the disease. Durbin’s bill would allow the FDA to issue mandatory recalls of food products, expanding the agency’s power significantly.

Coburn has been outspoken in his opposition to the bill since its inception, saying it would give more power and money to a federal agency, the FDA, that is already beset with problems. “It doubles down on regulations that aren’t working now, overlooks the concerns of the Government Accountability Office and ignores what the No. 1 portion for food safety is, which is free markets,” Coburn said. “You can add all the rules you want, and, unless the bureaucracy does what it’s supposed to do to communicate, [it won’t work]. The answer isn’t more rules and regulations. The answer is to make the sentiment out there now work by pushing the agency to do what it’s supposed to do.”

Small and family farm advocacy group Family Farm Defenders, one of the bill’s opponents, has said the proposed legislation has the potential to allow FDA officials to overstep their boundaries.

“The bill takes important steps to improve corporate food safety rules but it is not appropriate for small farms and processors that sell to restaurants, food coops, groceries, schools, wholesalers and at farm stands and farmers markets,” Family Farm Defenders said in a statement. “NSAC [the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, another agricultural advocacy group] thinks that these farms should have food safety plans appropriate to their size and processing practices. But it is critical that as we ramp up food safety protections we don’t inadvertently do harm to family farm value-added processing and the growing investments in local and regional food systems by imposing expensive, one-size-fits-all rules.”

Family Farm Defenders supports an amendment to the bill, proposed by Sen. Jon Tester, D-MT, which provides for “size-appropriate” regulations. The Tester amendment will be debated on Monday as well and adds provisions into the new legislation that would keep small farms from getting hit with new standards as hard as big company farms.

The Tester amendment would put the Health and Human Services Secretary in charge of deciding whose farm or business is too small for regulation. Critics are quick to point out that the HHS Secretary is advised on these issues by the head of the FDA, who, right now, is Michael R. Taylor, a former executive of big farm company and Senate Bill 510 supporter Monsanto.

Coburn told TheDC his proposal for an alternative to the bill, which he said doesn’t cost anything and addresses the communication difficulties of the agencies, hasn’t gained any traction in the Senate and that Sens. Reid and Durbin have not listened to or considered his recommendations at all.

On Monday’s Senate schedule, though, Coburn’s proposals have a set time for debate.

Coburn and Durbin have fought the battle over how to make food safer before. On September 23, the two faced off about it, on exactly the same issues. Durbin pushed for getting more authority and money for the current system in place, acknowledging that there are 12 federal agencies responsible for food safety, while Coburn pushed for streamlining those agencies into what he said would be a more effective, smaller agency or group of agencies.

The battle on Monday, however, will likely look like the late September showdown, in which Durbin offered to compromise with Coburn on the issue and, according to Durbin, come to a reasonable agreement, but Coburn declined the offer.

Coburn said he is much more in favor of free market system, in which consumer choice affects food safety, not government bureaucracies.

In a USA Today op-ed on Tuesday, Coburn defended his proposals to keep consumer choice as the highest incentive for food safety by saying “Throughout the debate, proponents have claimed we haven’t modernized food safety laws in 100 years.”

“That proves my point,” Coburn wrote in the op-ed. “For the past 100 years, the free market, not the government, has been the primary driver of innovation and improved safety. Consumer choice is a far more effective accountability mechanism than government bureaucracies.”