(UPDATED COVERAGE, Jan. 6) The Food Safety Modernization Act would require $1.4 billion in new funds over five years, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

That cost is causing some Republicans, emboldened by gains in November elections and increased public concern over deficit spending, to question whether the investment is worth the cost.

At the same time, produce industry associations are still looking at ways to address their concerns with the bill, signed by Obama on Jan. 4.

“In this new Congress we are going to be looking at ways where we can figure out a fix to what we think is still a flawed part of the bill, namely the Tester amendment,” said Ray Gilmer, vice president of communications at the Washington, D.C.-based United Fresh Produce Association.

Gilmer said United Fresh officials plan to talk to new members and committee leadership about the amendment from Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., that exempts some smaller operations from certain aspects of the food safety law.

“It is a pretty categorical exemption unless they are linked to an outbreak,” he said.

Tom O’Brien, the Washington, D.C., representative for the Newark, Del.-based Produce Marketing Association, said the amendment’s applicability to small growers in other countries surfaced during Congressional debate of the bill.

“You have got to treat countries alike, so that is sort of an open question,” he said.

A big change the law brings is increased food safety responsibility for importers, who must have food safety verification systems in place for growers of the imported produce they handle.

Budget scrutiny

Gilmer said United Fresh hasn’t decided if it will lobby for increased funds for the FDA.

“We’re going to figure out what our best strategies are based on the feedback we are getting from lawmakers before we decide on any one particular tactic,” Gilmer said.

Rep. Jack Kingston, R-Ga., the presumptive chairman of FDA and agriculture appropriations subcommittee in the new Congress, has said he believes the law should be trimmed.

“On a procedural level, I think the first cause of concern for us is the way that it was passed,” said Chris Crawford, communications director for Kingston.

The bill was seemingly dead until House Republicans paved the way for its passage with an 11th-hour agreement with Democrats.

“If this was such a well thought out bill, why was it not enacted earlier?’ he asked, adding that often such hastily passed laws have hidden flaws.

“Every day farmers, restaurateurs, producers and processors do things to make the food supply safe so let’s start from there.”

With $1.4 trillion in federal debt, each increase in funding by any agency will have to be judged critically, he said.

“The $1.4 billion is a huge expenditure for an agency that has already seen its budget double over five years,” Crawford said.

Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., key Democrat on the FDA and Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee, released a statement Jan. 4 vowing to defend the legislation against Republican cuts.

“It is disturbing that there will be an effort by Republicans to cut FDA funding and thus prevent this landmark new law from being implemented adequately,” she said in the statement.

“In the same week that Republicans announced their intention to cut FDA funding for the new food safety law, it was announced that a salmonella outbreak involving alfalfa sprouts had sickened nearly 100 people in at least 15 states.”

In a Jan. 3 teleconference about the legislation, FDA commissioner Margaret Hamburg said the agency will work with Congress and other stakeholders to identify funding needs.

“I’m very optimistic that we will be able to move forward to implement the bill,” she said.

Hamburg said funding will influence the number of staff FDA can hire to conduct inspections and other oversight.

Asked whether the Tester amendment would spoil the legislation’s attempt to improve traceability, Hamburg said there is not a one-size-fits-all approach in terms of implementation.

“We need to be flexible, but we also do need to be able to put forward a certain set of standards and expectations,” Hamburg said during the teleconference.

She said that the FDA is “fairly far along” in developing science-based minimum standards for growing and harvesting of fruits and vegetables.

Hamburg said the produce safety regulation will address a range of concerns, including worker health and hygiene, packaging, temperature controls, water issues, soil issues and other issues. She said the FDA is trying to put forward a set of standards for produce safety that will make a difference and reflect best practice.

She said the deadline for the produce safety regulation is about a year.

The Food Safety Modernization Act — select provisions:

  • Expands FDA access to a facility’s records in a food emergency.
  • Provides for laboratory accreditation bodies to ensure food testing labs meet quality standards.
  • Allows for qualified third parties to certify that foreign food facilities comply with U.S. food safety standards.
  • Requires importers to verify the safety of foreign suppliers and imported food.
  • Allows FDA to require certification for high-risk foods, and to deny entry to a food that lacks certification or that is from a foreign facility that has refused U.S. inspectors.
  • Increases the number of FDA inspections at all food facilities.
  • Allows FDA to initiate a mandatory recall of a food product when a company fails to voluntarily recall the contaminated product upon FDA’s request.
  • Allows FDA to suspend a food facility’s registration if there is a reasonable probability that food from the facility will cause serious adverse health consequences or death.
  • Provides training for facilities to comply with the new safety requirements and includes special accommodations for small businesses and farms.
  • Exempts small businesses from certain aspects of the produce standards and preventive control requirements.

Source: Senate Health Committee

Obama signs food safety law amid budget questions