FDA chief backs food safety overhaul
But Commissioner Margaret Hamburg tells the Senate that Congress must also fund the reforms, which are aimed at helping the agency prevent food-borne illness rather than just respond to it.
By Andrew Zajac

October 22, 2009 | 5:54 p.m.

Reporting from Washington – Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Margaret Hamburg on Thursday strongly endorsed legislation that would give her agency new tools to improve food safety, but she warned that Congress still must find a way to pay for them if consumers are to benefit.

The far-reaching overhaul seeks to transform the FDA from an agency that reacts to outbreaks of food-borne illness to one that keeps them from happening by setting new quality standards, increasing inspections and requiring more and better record-keeping by food producers.

But the changes would require significant additional manpower and costly new computer systems, Hamburg told the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. “We are concerned that the bill does not provide a guaranteed consistent funding source to help FDA fulfill its new responsibilities,” she said.

A version of the proposed beefing up of the FDA’s food safety system passed the House in July. The Senate’s companion bill got its first hearing by the health committee Thursday.

Hamburg didn’t say how much money she thought her agency needed, but committee Chairman Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) urged the FDA to come up with cost estimates quickly because, he said, he didn’t want to pass a bill that would be undermined by inadequate funding.

The House bill carried an estimated price tag of $3.7 billion over five years, financed in part by a $500 annual fee on food facilities.

The Senate bill would require food businesses to write safety plans that identify possible sources of contamination and the steps taken to eliminate them.

It would also require the FDA to increase facility inspections, set safety standards for produce and issue rules to ensure that imported food meets the same standards as those for domestically produced food. It would also give the FDA authority to recall food if a company failed to act voluntarily, and require the agency to improve coordination with state and local health officials so that outbreak of illness can be spotted more quickly.

In a surprise, Harkin said he wanted the Senate to pass the bill and iron out differences with the House legislation within the next two months, even though Congress is already deeply engaged in a complex overhaul of the healthcare system.

“Hopefully we can get this bill passed and to the White House before year’s end,” he said.

A fast track may be possible in part because of agreement among consumer groups and major players in the food industry that the FDA’s regulatory protocol is badly outdated.

The Senate bill’s sponsor, Illinois Democrat Richard J. Durbin, and other supporters pointed to recent deaths and illness attributed to contaminated food and to recent recalls of spinach, cookie dough, tomatoes, jalapeno peppers, peanuts and other products. The recalls together have cost food producers billions of dollars.

“This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to do something about food safety, Durbin said, referring to a bipartisan consensus that saw five Republicans join six Democrats in co-sponsoring the measure.

Hamburg said the FDA is already in the midst of stepping up scrutiny of the food supply using its existing authorities.

The agency is adding 350 employees to its food safety operations and expects to conduct an additional 2,000 inspections of domestic food facilities this year, plus a smaller number at plants in foreign countries, she said.

About 156,000 domestic food facilities are registered with the FDA.

Hamburg endorsed Durbin’s legislation as “a terrific and comprehensive approach” to bolstering food safety, but she nonetheless requested changes, several of which are already in the House version.
Hamburg asked that the FDA be given access to a company’s food records during routine inspections instead of just in emergencies and that it have more power to pressure companies to meet safety standards.

She also requested that during an outbreak of a food-borne illness, the FDA be allowed to share confidential company information with other government agencies.

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