Ag Groups: No to FDA oversight |

Ag Groups: No to FDA oversight

TSLN file photoThe Food and Drug Administration would have the authority to inspect farm and ranch premises under a new bill being considered by the House.

WASHINGTON (DTN) – Agricultural groups are expressing concern about a draft bill on food safety that could lead to livestock producers and meatpackers being placed under oversight of U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

The House Energy & Commerce Committee could begin marking up the bill later this week, though nothing had been set on the committee’s schedule as of Monday afternoon.

Over the past two years, the FDA has come under fire over food scares ranging from salmonella blamed on tomatoes and later peppers, as well as recalls over peanuts and contaminated imported ingredients. Still, the legislation would give FDA some control over food-safety areas such as meat, poultry and eggs now regulated solely by USDA.

Currently, FDA regulates fruits, vegetables and processed foods. USDA regulates meat, poultry and egg inspections.

The House bill would also establish mandatory recall authority for the FDA and add new inspection and recall fees for food processors. For instance, companies facing recalls would be charged by the FDA to recoup the agency’s costs for investigating and managing a recall. Currently, recalls by both USDA and FDA are voluntary.

Farm groups are particularly concerned about new authorities in the bill that would allow the FDA to inspect farms, though the draft bill is vague regarding under what circumstances federal authorities would be allowed to inspect a farm operation.

Colin Woodall, a lobbyist for the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, was quoted in the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call saying NCBA could not back the bill because it would give the FDA too much regulatory oversight on farm operations.

“There is no need to have FDA inspectors come on farms or cattle operations,” Woodall said in the Roll Call article. “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 in an e-mail the NPPC also is concerned about potential of on-farm inspections and the lack of clarity in the draft bill as to when such inspections would be authorized to occur.

Ag groups are waiting for the Energy & Commerce Committee to actually introduce the bill and set a markup date for it before writing letters on the legislation. Lobbyists and spokespersons for different groups said they do expect the bill to get a markup date, possibly as early as this week.

Other provisions of the bill would extend country-of-origin labeling to processed foods. Foods such as TV dinners would have to label in which country the final food was processed and packaged together. Companies would also be required to list on their websites the country of origin for individual ingredients in processed-food items.

The bill also would exclude direct sales from farmers to consumers from those sales that must deal with some regulatory oversight provisions such as documentation for tracking food.

While a House committee drafts legislation that could affect entities now regulated under the USDA, right now USDA still does not have an undersecretary for food safety. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack lamented last week that he has been challenged in trying to find a food-safety undersecretary who does not have ties to a lobbying organization.

The Obama administration has attempted to take the initiative on food safety by creating a working group involving USDA and the U.S. Health and Human Services, the FDA’s umbrella department. The working group was hampered for several months as the administration struggled to find a secretary for Health and Human Services. Last month, the administration’s Food Safety Work Group held a listening session, but the task force has not scheduled any other items or actions.

Vilsack also created a stir shortly after taking office when he told reporters in February that the federal government should have just one food-safety regulatory agency.

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