Egg Crisis Piques Interest in Food-Safety Bill

Lawmakers to consider greater oversight authority for food regulators.

Aug. 29, 2010— -- The outbreak of salmonella in eggs is energizing efforts to pass a long-stalled food-safety bill that could prevent or mitigate such problems, according to federal officials, congressional supporters and independent experts.

The bill, designed to overhaul a fractured food-safety system that hasn't been updated in decades, would expand federal regulators' powers to police food manufacturers. The House passed a version in 2009, but the legislation has stalled in the Senate, despite bipartisan support.

Among other things, the legislation would require more frequent government inspections of food manufacturing facilities and the creation of stronger mechanisms for tracing food-borne illness outbreaks back to their source. The bill also would give the Food and Drug Administration authority to order recalls of food that may be tainted with salmonella, E. coli O157:H7 and other contaminants.

"The pending legislation is absolutely critical," Jeff Farrar, associate FDA commissioner for food protection, said in a call with reporters. "There are just numerous important measures in that bill that will give us new authorities and resources. "

About 550 million eggs have been recalled in the salmonella outbreak, which federal investigators have linked to two Iowa production facilities: Wright County Egg and Hillandale Farms. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has tied as many as 1,300 illnesses to the outbreak. Officials say there could be as many as 30 unreported illnesses for each documented case.

The outbreak comes amid a push by the Obama administration to toughen food-safety rules.

Last month, the administration enacted sweeping requirements on major egg producers with a goal of cutting egg-related salmonella cases by 60%, or nearly 80,000 cases a year. Among other things, the rules require salmonella testing of hens and eggs, better sanitation in henhouses and improved refrigeration. The FDA is beginning a ramped-up inspection program to ensure compliance.

The success of the rules depends on Congress passing the food-safety bill, which would mark the first major update of food-safety laws in 70 years.

The legislation would affect both the FDA, which supervises most food manufacturers, and the Agriculture Department, which oversees beef and poultry production.

Outside experts say the current salmonella crisis will prompt the Senate to take up the bill. "This outbreak creates an enormous public expectation that the Senate is going to react," says Erik Olson, a food-safety expert at the Pew Charitable Trusts.

Among the key provisions:

•Inspections. The legislation would set mandatory inspection rates for food production facilities. Currently, FDA-regulated facilities can go a decade or more without inspection.

•Recalls. Regulators would get the power to order recalls of suspect products. Recalls now are voluntary; federal regulators can spend days negotiating them with manufacturers.

•Enforcement. Government inspectors would get new powers to suspend or shut down plants with poor safety records.

•Disease surveillance. Federal agencies would strengthen programs meant to identify and track food-borne illnesses, and new rules would help trace the foods that cause those outbreaks.

Earlier this month, a modified version of the legislation was proposed by Sens. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, and Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., chairman and ranking minority member, respectively, of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.

"Both sides agree on the need to improve ... regulatory tools," Enzi said Tuesday. The salmonella outbreak "adds to the urgency," Harkin said earlier this month, expressing hope that the bill will get a vote by the full Senate "as soon as possible."

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