A House panel is inviting the owners of two companies responsible for the recent egg-related salmonella outbreak to testify on Capitol Hill next month.
Wright County Egg executive Austin "Jack" DeCoster and Hillandale Farm executive Orland Bethel would face a grilling on the most recent food recall that's resulted in 1,300 cases of salmonella poisoning from tainted eggs in ten states. More than 550,000 eggs have been recalled so far.
With this hearing, and the committee's investigation, the House is once again taking the lead on matters of safety in the country's food supply.
The House passed the Food Safety Enhancement Act of 2009 over one year ago. It would give the Department of Agriculture, the Food and Drug Administration and other agencies new authorities to recall tainted food, increase surveillance and inspection of food suppliers and the ability to issue new regulations for fruit and vegetable producers. It would also give the Department of Agriculture more power after a food-borne illness outbreak to track the contaminated food.
Now it just has to pass the Senate. And when discussing the recent egg recalls, one House Democratic aide said "hopefully this will get them to act."
Though majority leader Harry Reid has said the bill is a priority, there's been little time to take it up. Between health care reform, job-related legislation, a Supreme Court confirmation process and members wanting to be back in their home states to campaign this election year, it has not been a top priority despite high-profile recalls of spinach, peppers and peanut butter products over the past two years.
There was significant movement in the Senate earlier this month when a bipartisan group of lawmakers on the Health, Education and Labor (HELP) Committee brokered a compromise on their own version of the legislation.
The Senate bill is similar to the House-passed legislation, but the House would require significantly more frequent inspections of high-risk food production facilities. The Senate bill would only require one inspection in the first five years and then once every three years after that while the House would mandate inspections at least once a year.
The committee's chairman, Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA), put out statement last week saying that the salmonella outbreak "adds to the urgency that, for far too long, has told the story of why comprehensive food safety legislation is needed. Our 100-year-old plus food safety structure needs to be modernized." Harkin also said he hopes that when the Senate reconvenes they will take up the legislation "as soon as possible."
One big question, however, is will it help prevent future food contamination outbreaks or make future recalls faster and more effective.
Senior lobbyist for Food and Water Watch Tony Corbo says the inspection frequencies in both bills are concerning, but especially in the Senate version. Corbo said in the case of Hillandale Farms "you wouldn't know a problem like the one we just had was happening if the farm was only inspected once every five years."
But Erik Olson of the Pew Health Group said that there are strong parts of the bills pending that would make a difference. Particularly, the traceback provisions which would make the FDA figure out an electronic filing system for most producers to track who they sell their product to. Olson said that in many cases, like in the peanut salmonella outbreak, "one company may produce a product that is part of hundreds of other products." Records of where the original product went are sometimes on scraps of paper and there's no standardized system which leads to a major delay of recalls while the FDA rummages through files.
"It can literally take months" to track all the products that contain the contaminated ingredient, Olson said. "In the meantime, people can continue eating it."
The Senate returns to Washington September 13th. Reid spokeswoman Regan Lachappelle said they are "still working on the schedule, but yes it is possible that it will come up in the next work period." The only bill definitely expected on the floor when the Senate returns is a small business lending bill.
The Senate would have to pass its version of food safety legislation and then work out differences with the House of Representatives. Then both chambers would likely have to pass the bill again before sending it to the President for his signature.