Sen. Tom Harkin speaks to the Senate last night on the importance of passing the food safety bill. He talks about support from business and consumer groups, but doesn't note that produce organizations have withdrawn support. From CSPAN closed caption.

Senate Session, Part 2
Nov 18, 2010

Harkin, Thomas "Tom"U.S. Senator
[D] Iowa

View Session Timeline

Mr. HARKIN. Madam President, in a very short while here--literally, in about 40 minutes--the time will be expired and we will be voting on the motion to proceed to the Food Safety Modernization Act. The Food Safety Modernization Act. One can wonder why did we have to go through a cloture motion and a vote on that the other day. We got 74 votes on it. But it looks as though now we are going to have to have another vote on the motion to proceed after we have had 74 votes.

A lot of effort has gone into this bill by a lot of people--Republicans and Democrats--and, Lord knows, our staff. This bill has been germinating and being put together over the course of at least the last 3 or 4 years anyway, and probably a little before that when we started. I know Senator Durbin has been working on this for several years, as have Senator Gregg, Senator Dodd, and others. So this has all been put together over a period of several years. But I would say over the last 4 years, diligent work has gone into this bill, and certainly again in the last year.

It was 1 year ago, November 18--1 year ago today--that this bill was reported out of our HELP Committee, which I chair. It was reported out without one dissenting vote. It is a bill that is supported by so many different groups and so many different people. Here is a list of the people supporting this bill. We worked hard to get a broad base of support from both industry and consumers. As I have said, this may be one of the only bills I have seen around here that has the support not only of the Food Marketing Institute and the Grocery Manufacturers Institute and the Center for Science in the Public Interest. So we have both consumer groups and the business groups [Page: S8026] supporting this--the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the U.S. Public Interest Research Group. When have those two ever been together on a bill? And the Snack Food Association and the Pew Charitable Trusts. I mean, we have wide support for this.

The industry wants this. They want it because they know our food safety laws have not been upgraded in seven decades--since 1938, before I was born. Think about how our food has changed in our society and how we produce it and how we process it and how we ship it, not to mention the amount of foreign foods coming into this country. Consumers want it because we know a lot of people are getting sick.

I will hasten to add that we do have one of the safest food supplies in the world. But that is not good enough, because we know how many people get ill every year. Thousands of people are contaminated by food poisoning every year--E. coli, salmonella. I have met with families here from Safe Tables Our Priority. I have met with families of kids who are damaged for life because they happened to eat the wrong thing--they ate some spinach or a tomato or fish, shellfish, or something such as that.

These kids are maimed for life.

We have worked very hard to put this bill together. As I said, 1 year ago it came out of our committee without one dissenting vote. But there were still some problems out there, and so we worked very hard since last November to try to reach an agreement on this bill. And we have a broad agreement. As I said, we had 74 votes on the floor of the Senate the other day.

One of my colleagues has raised a lot of issues on this bill. My good friend from Oklahoma, Senator Coburn, is on our committee, and he has raised a lot of concerns about this bill. I have met with him several times and we have had good discussions. I know he said some nice things about me on the floor earlier, and I appreciate that, and I would repay those in kind; that Senator Coburn is a very thoughtful person and he focuses on these things. He reads these bills and he gets involved. This is not something off the seat of his pants. He has focused on this. Some of the suggestions he made I thought were valid. We looked through them and we incorporated a lot of the suggestions made by my friend from Oklahoma into this bill.

We were also willing to go to the consumers and say, look, this is okay. None of us--not any one Senator around here--has infinite wisdom. Only one person has infinite wisdom. No Senators have infinite wisdom. I can't say I have ever written a bill in its entirety that got through here without having anything changed, because we don't know everything. So we rely upon one another in good faith to suggest changes, to point out things maybe we didn't see due to our blinders. We help each other put together bills that have broad support and broad consensus so that we move ahead as a society. To me, that is the way I think we ought to operate.

So when other people were making suggestions--and I didn't mean to single out Senator Coburn, because others too had made suggestions--we tried to work with them to incorporate certain provisions in the bill. Senator Tester, for example, on our side had suggestions about exempting certain small producers. That raised the consternation of many on the consumer side. It also raised the consternation of many on the business side. A lot of the bigger businesses said: Well, if we have to do this, you can get just as sick from eating things from small producers too. So we had to work through that. But we did work through it. It took us several months but we worked through and we got an agreement.

Quite frankly, we had good input from the Republican side--from Senator Gregg, Senator Enzi, and Senator Burr. I mention those individuals because they have been very integral to this process on our committee. We have worked through that and we got an amendment that satisfies the small producers and the consumers and the business community and the large producers. Not easy. Not easy. But compromises a lot of times aren't very easy. It is a compromise that we worked through. We worked through Senator Tester's amendment too. That took a long time.

We were not able to reach an agreement on Senator Feinstein's amendment. We agreed not to incorporate it because we could not reach an agreement on it--on the BPA amendment, even though it is very important to her and very important to a lot of people.

We have tried to get something together that would have this broad consensus and yet move us forward in making our food safer, and I believe this bill does that. This bill does this in four ways: It improves the prevention of food safety problems. That is key. For many years, I served as chair or ranking member on the Agriculture Committee--35 years, both here and in the House. Many years ago, we came up with a program of prevention. Rather than solving the problem later, the question was: How do we prevent pathogens from entering the meat supply? We came up with this proposal of finding the access points. Where are the points in the process where contaminants and pathogens can come in? Let us have the industry come up with plans on how to prevent that on their own. That has worked. Does it work 100 percent every single time? No. But nothing is ever perfect.

I would hasten to add that even if we pass this bill, will it prevent every single foodborne illness forever and ever? Probably not. Probably not. But it is going to be a lot better than what we have right now, a lot better, because we are going to look at prevention--preventing the pathogens from entrance in the first place. So that is one way we do it.

Secondly, it improves the response to detection of foodborne illness outbreaks when they do occur. In other words, we will be able to detect it earlier and respond earlier than we have been able to do in the past.

It enhances our Nation's food defense capabilities. Every year, 76 million Americans get sick from foodborne illnesses--76 million. So the stakes are too high not to act.

These are the critical ways in which we have moved the ball forward. Again, I know my friend from Oklahoma has said to me many times that it will not solve all your problems. I understand that. It is not perfect. But there is an old saying: Don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good. This is a good bill. It is going to help keep our people from getting sick. Everyone? No. I would never stand here and say this is going to solve every single foodborne illness problem in America. But it is sure going to do a lot more than we have been doing.

Again, I want to make it clear that if anyone says we are trampling on the rights of the minority, I ask you to consider all we have done. We have a bipartisan team in place, we have modified the bill dozens of times to get the right balance, we have all made tremendous compromises--Democrats and Republicans, consumers and business. As I said, we agreed to compromises just lately. The mandatory inspection schedule, which is so important to the public health community, has been reduced tenfold--tenfold--since that bill was reported out of our committee unanimously 1 year ago. We accepted language, as I said, which exempted the small facilities from these new requirements--the Tester amendment. We agreed to changes in the section on traceback, which limits the application of the new rule to farms and restaurants. There is no registration fee to help pay for the bill. The routine access to records the FDA wanted, we don't do that either.

That is a short list. I can go on and on. I think one of my friends on the other side said we have bent over backward, and we have. We wanted to reach a point where we could move ahead with the bill, even offering to let some amendments be offered and we would vote on those amendments. But what has happened now, I understand, is that the Senator from Oklahoma, my friend, has now said he wanted to offer an amendment dealing with earmarks.

Look, earmarks is an issue. It is an issue that the next Congress, I would say--probably the next Congress--is going to have to address. But it should be done in the spirit of debate. It should be done in the spirit so committees that have relevant jurisdiction can look at this, make recommendations. We should not do it in the heat of passion, right now. We just came off of a very heated election. There have been a lot of changes made. I understand that. [Page: S8027] We live with that. That is fine. But now is not the time to start throwing up red-hot issues that were in the campaign. Let's let things cool down a little bit and approach an issue such as earmarks thoughtfully, with due diligence and with due debate.

This bill that is going to protect our people from getting sick and our kids from being injured for lifetimes because they eat contaminated peanut butter--this is not the bill to deal with something dealing with earmarks. I hope my friend from Oklahoma will relent. There will be plenty of time and plenty of opportunities when we come back in January with a new Congress, I say to my colleague from Oklahoma, to bring up the matter of earmarks and have it debated fully and have some kind of resolution by both the Senate and the House on that issue--but not right now. This is not the time to do it, not in the heat of coming off the campaign.

Let's keep our eye on the ball. This is a food safety bill. We have come so close. We have an agreement from the House that what we pass here, the bill we have put together, that we reached all these compromises on--we have an agreement from the House, if we pass it and we do get significant--we get bipartisan support, that the House would take it and pass it and send it right to the President. What more could you ask for than that? We get to decide what the President actually signs into law.

Without going into every little thing we have done here, let me just mention a few.

Senator Coburn was concerned about the authorization level, so we offered in good faith to reduce it by 50 percent. That is kind of a compromise--we just reduced the authorization by 50 percent on the grants. We offered to modify the sections on performance standards and surveillance. It is completely done. We completely struck section 510. We called for increasing the hiring of FDA staff. In our bill, we called for increasing staff to conduct certain inspections. My friend objected to that. In the spirit of compromise, we struck it. We said no, we are not going to call for increasing hiring of field staff. Mr. Coburn had some concerns--rightfully so, by the way--about improving coordination between FDA and USDA, so we offered to add his language that would force them to get together and not duplicate efforts, and on the customs side, too, so we would eliminate any kind of duplication of inspections. We put that in the bill.

We offered to do all this and to put it in the bill, and we did, and that will be in our amendment that we offer. We will in good faith put those things in our bill. But then I am told that now we are probably going to have to file cloture, fill the tree, and do all that stuff which I was hoping we would not have to do. That is not the way to do business here. I don't like doing it that way. That is why we worked so hard to try to reach these agreements. But I guess we are going to be forced to do that. I hope that is not so.

I also heard that maybe someone might want to read the bill. That is 4 hours of reading the bill. That bill has been out here for a year. If anybody wanted to read it, they could have read it by now. But that is just another delaying tactic we really do not need.

Again, on this issue of saying we cannot vote on this bill unless we will vote on earmarks, I say earmarks is an important issue. I am happy to have the debate and to have a vote on that but not now. This is a food safety bill. We have it ready to go. We have all our compromises in place. This is not the time and this is not the bill on which to debate the whole issue of earmarks.

You might say, why are we so willing to compromise, why am I so passionate on this bill? Because people are dying. We have Thanksgiving coming up. People will be gathered around with their families--except for all those people in homeless shelters. Mr. President, 950,000 children in America who go to elementary, middle, and high school will not have a home to go to this Thanksgiving because they are living in homeless shelters. Think about that. They are living in cars and homeless shelters.

They are being shunted around--950,000. Am I going to stand here and say that if we pass this bill and get it to the President, that is going to keep any one of them from getting sick on what they might eat on Thanksgiving Day? I am not here to say that. But what this bill will do is send a strong signal that we are going to take the steps necessary in the coming months and years to upgrade our food safety system so that the chance, the likelihood of them ever getting sick from eating contaminated food is going to be greatly decreased. Surely we can at least send that hopeful message out to our families before Thanksgiving. Surely we could do that and not get bollixed up around here in politics and political debate.

I know of no politics on this bill. I know of no politics. I mean Democrat, Republican, left, right, liberal, conservative--I don't know of anything like that. There is not. I do know that this issue of earmarks, regardless of the substantive issue, is a political issue too. They may have substantive reasons, but there is also a lot of politics hanging around that.

Let's take the bill that has no politics, knows neither left nor right, conservative, liberal, Democrat, or Republican. It has nothing to do with earmarks or what we ever do with earmarks or anything else. It has to do with the safety and welfare of our American families, of our kids. I am just asking people to be reasonable.

There is a time and place for political debate, even here on the Senate floor. We may say it does not happen, but we know it does. There is a time and place for that. That will happen--not now, not on this bill. We have come too far. We are too close. We have too many compromises that we made that are so widely supported. I am afraid that if we lose this, all the good work that has gone in in the last year, the last 2 years, the last 4 years putting this together, it is going to be very hard to put it back together again. So people will continue to roll the dice when they buy food. Maybe it is safe and maybe it is not.

We will continue to see more things happen like what happened to Kayla Boner, Monroe, IA, age 14. On October 22, 2007, she turned 14 and passed her learner's permit. The next day, she stayed home. She had a foodborne illness due to E. coli contamination. She was admitted to the Paella, IA, Community Hospital. Her symptoms worsened. She didn't respond to antibiotics, and within a week her kidneys began to fail. Kayla was transferred to Blank Children's Hospital for dialysis, but her condition continued to deteriorate. She suffered a seizure and began to have heart problems. A few days later, Kayla's brain activity stopped, and her parents made the painful decision to take their beautiful daughter off life support.

For Kyle Allgood--spinach. His family is going to have an empty seat at their Thanksgiving table this year. Kyle, a playful 2-year-old, fell ill after eating bagged spinach contaminated by a deadly strain of E. coli. They thought it was flu. He began to cry from excruciating abdominal pain. He was flown all the way to a Salt Lake City hospital. His kidneys failed, he had a heart attack, and he died--from eating bagged spinach.

Stephanie Bartilucci's family is also going to have an empty seat at their Thanksgiving table this year--killed by listeria, eating lettuce. She was 30 weeks pregnant, Stephanie was. She felt that something was wrong. When she went for an ultrasound, it showed that the baby was not moving. She had contractions, and eventually her heart began to beat dangerously fast and she had to undergo an emergency C-section. When she awoke, she found that her baby boy had bleeding in his brain and couldn't breathe on his own. He was intubated and brain dead. Stephanie soon discovered she had been suffering from a bacterial infection from eating contaminated lettuce. The bacteria was so deadly that she became septic and almost lost her own life. Her newborn baby, Michael, died in her arms that night.

There are also families who have had loved ones survive foodborne illnesses, but their lives will never be the same, such as Rylee Gustafson and her family. On Rylee's ninth birthday, she began to complain of stomach pain after eating E. coli-contaminated spinach. Within 72 hours, she had been admitted to UCSF Children's Hospital. Her kidneys began to fail, and dialysis treatments were started. In addition to kidney failure, she experienced hallucinations and temporary loss of vision, [Page: S8028] developed high blood pressure and diabetes, and had fluid buildup in her lungs and around her heart. On the 10th day of hospitalization, Rylee's condition had deteriorated to the point where the doctors believed it necessary to prepare her family that she might not pull through. Rylee spent 35 days in the hospital and will have to endure the memories of that traumatic time for the rest of her life. The long-term effects of her illness are currently unknown.

How many Americans will have to die, how many of these kids will become sick before we fulfill our responsibility to modernize our woefully outdated food safety system? How many families will have to endure a tragic loss before we pass this legislation? One more tragedy is one too many. I urge my colleagues, as they think about their holiday plans and their preparations, to take a moment to think about families who have had their holidays disrupted by contaminated food. Five thousand people die every year in this country because of contaminated food. Among them are many children. As they spend the day with their loved ones preparing Thanksgiving banquets, the last thing people want is to be jeopardized by the threat of food contamination. Yet many families are haunted by this. It is unacceptable. It is past time we do something. We have come too far. We have reached compromises. We have the support of many sectors of society.

Again, if we pass this bill, will it ensure that no kid like Rylee will ever get sick again? I can't make that promise. Or that no one will ever die? I can't make that promise. But I can promise this: With the passage of this bill, putting it into law, the chances there will be another Rylee Gustafson will be diminished greatly.

Let's not get this caught up in politics. Let's get the politics out of this. Let's vote on the bill. Let's get it through. Let's go home. Let Senators go home for Thanksgiving grateful that we have done a good thing, that we have done something good for our country, and that we didn't let it get all boxed up in politics. Isn't that the least we can do for the country on this Thanksgiving week? I yield the floor.

Blog|About C-SPAN Video Library|Contact Us|TOS
C-SPAN Created by Cable. Offered as a Public Service.
Site by JESS3