Meat Industry Wants to Take Bite Out of Safety Bill

Posted June 5, 2009 at 5:50pm

The meat industry has a beef with food safety legislation that is making its way through the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

The Subcommittee on Health is expected to mark up a food safety bill as early as Wednesday, and the committee’s Democratic and Republican staffs were meeting into the evening Friday to try to iron out some of the measure’s sticking points. But meat industry groups say they will have a difficult time swallowing the bill in its current form.

“Right now, this is a bill we just don’t support,— said Colin Woodall, executive director of legislative affairs for the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association. “We are very much in support of food safety, but this bill would have a lot of unintended consequences and would add more costly regulations and won’t actually translate into safer food.—

Woodall said meat producers are also concerned about the precedent this bill could set in giving the Food and Drug Administration regulatory authority over the industry, which is currently watched over by the Department of Agriculture. The cattlemen’s group also takes issue with mandatory recalls and says voluntary recalls work better. The industry worries that the bill would require government inspectors on farms, Woodall said.

“There is no need to have FDA inspectors come on farms or cattle operations,— Woodall said. “There are too many other processes and steps between the time it leaves the farm and gets to the consumer, including the way the consumer handles the product when they get it home. It would give a false sense of security to the consumer.—

Dave Warner, a spokesman for the National Pork Producers Council, said his group has a number of concerns about the legislation, with on-farm inspections being among the top. “FDA doesn’t not have the personnel, and it doesn’t have the expertise,— he said.

But consumer groups are by and large on board with the direction of the food safety discussion draft backed by six committee Democrats, including Chairman Henry Waxman (Calif.), former Chairman John Dingell (Mich.) and Subcommittee on Health Chairman Frank Pallone (N.J.).

“We do have some amendments that we would like to have made to it,— said Carol Tucker Foreman of the Consumer Federation of America. “We feel like we’re very much in agreement with the committee and committee staff. We have a very united coalition that includes all of the consumer organizations. We like this bill.—

Tucker Foreman said the consumer advocates would like to strengthen some of the bill’s language as it relates to performance standards that companies would have to meet. But, she said, “this bill is built on telling companies, it’s your responsibility to produce safe food,’ and requires FDA to set standards.—

The Grocery Manufacturers Association takes issue with the provision in the bill that sets up industry-paid fees to help cover the expenses of a stepped-up food safety system.

“We’re concerned that industry funding inspections would create a conflict of interest. We think that any industry investments need to improve, not erode, consumer confidence,— said Scott Faber, a top lobbyist with the GMA. “Consumers expect that inspectors know that they are working for the taxpayers, and not for industry, when they are inside a food manufacturing plant.—

But Tucker Foreman said the consumer groups are OK with the fee because it is structured as a flat “registration fee— and not a user fee.

“We would oppose it if it was specifically to pay for inspections, but it is not,— she said. “Where we have some disagreement with GMA, we think this language about the user fee is written very carefully. We think that food safety inspections are part of a general public health program, and the GMA is trying to muddy the water by comparing them to user fees for drugs and devices, but in this bill, it says there is a registration fee.—

Despite the fees issue, Faber said the GMA hopes to see a bill move forward.

“We’ve been advocating for food safety legislation now for more than two years,— Faber said. “The food industry wants Congress to move swiftly.—

Against this backdrop, the lobbying debate over food safety this week could get an infusion of Hollywood-style advocacy. On Friday, a new movie is premiering called “Food Inc.,— which is critical of large corporate farms and makes the case for increased food safety regulations.

American Meat Institute spokeswoman Janet Riley said her organization has set up a Web site, safefoodinc.com, to counter what she calls the movie’s many “myths— that could muddy the Congressional debate over food safety.

“The movie’s messages aren’t based on facts, so that’s why we wanted to get facts out,— she said, adding that the AMI set up the Web site in-house and did not use an outside public relations firm. “You want to be operating based upon the correct information.—