Editorial: Clock running out on food reforms

  • Updated: November 27, 2010 - 6:20 PM

Congressional foot-dragging puts landmark safety bill at risk.

It's a national disgrace that a landmark bill overhauling America's antiquated food-safety laws is teetering on the edge of legislative oblivion as a lame-duck Congress careers toward adjournment.

The Food Safety Modernization Act, which faces a critical U.S. Senate vote Monday night, should have sailed through Congress, even in this age of political gridlock. Instead, its long-overdue consumer protections have been mired in the Senate since early this year. Although the bill should pass easily Monday, the clock is quickly running out for its final approval.

The Senate's foot-dragging on the bill -- irresponsibly prolonged recently by Oklahoma Republican Dr. Tom Coburn -- means that last-minute legislative heavy lifting is needed from the House before adjournment. House members already passed their own food-safety reforms. But because its bill differs enough from the Senate version, the House will have to take time in its crowded last days to approve the Senate's bill. There's likely not enough time to reconcile the two bills by conference committee.

Without House action, these long-overdue reforms will just be another legislative victim at the session's end. That would be an outrage in the wake of high-profile foodborne disease outbreaks that have killed Minnesotans, including Shirley Mae Almer, a beloved 72-year-old grandmother from Perham who died after eating tainted peanut butter.

Common-sense measures within the Senate bill would guard against future deaths and illnesses. A key reform: giving the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) the power to recall tainted foods. Measures would also strengthen oversight of imported foods and improve "tracebacks" -- the ability to find contaminated food before it lands on dinner tables. That's absolutely critical when an estimated 5,000 Americans die from foodborne disease annually.

While Fox News host Glenn Beck has ludicrously portrayed these changes as a government takeover of the food supply, more thoughtful and fact-based consideration elsewhere has led to widespread support for these reforms. Public-health advocates are firmly in favor. Many industry groups are also supportive. The reason? Outbreaks of foodborne disease are costly, can lead to even more costly lawsuits and can tarnish a corporate reputation for years. Minnesota, as a national leader in food processing, has a huge stake in this bill's success.

Industry support has been a key reason for the broad, bipartisan backing for the Senate food-safety reforms. Coburn, who tied up the bill's progress to attach an earmark moratorium to it, has been one of the few in either party to publicly criticize the bill. He has objected to mandatory recall powers, among other things. The bill's lead author is Illinois Democrat Sen. Dick Durbin; Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar is a cosponsor.

Like every piece of legislation, the Senate food-safety bill has flaws. A newly added amendment shielding small producers from oversight goes too far; their products are not magically protected from pathogens, as many misguidedly believe. "They are a very important part of the foodborne-disease problem,'' said Michael Osterholm, director of the University of Minnesota's Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy. Osterholm supports the Senate bill's passage.

Prioritizing funding for the additional resources the FDA will need also remains a challenge. Passing the bill will be a solid start, but there's more work to be done.

Lawmakers risk much if they allow these reforms to wind up on the legislative dust heap. This bill's fate over the next few days will say much about their ability to work together to accomplish goals of national importance. Confidence in lawmakers, already at a low ebb, will only erode further if these valuable reforms don't become a reality.

  • REALITY CHECK

    Glenn Beck's Fox News program has raised fears that the food-safety bill will outlaw back-yard gardens. It does no such thing. Another reality: One of Beck's major advertisers just happens to hawk a $149 "Survival Seeds" kit to defend against "emerging totalitarianism.'' To read the bill's actual language, go online to www.startribune.com/a36.

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