Las Vegas Sun

November 25, 2015

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Safety in food supply

Earmarks and objections shouldn’t delay needed legislation in Congress

There has been no shortage of news in recent years of contaminated food sickening or killing people in America, and the problem hasn’t been isolated to one type of food. Tainted eggs, celery, spinach and pistachios are among items that have been recalled.

The government is supposed to protect the public from tainted food — at least on paper. In reality, federal regulators have largely been overwhelmed by the task and understaffed for the job. The Food and Drug Administration, for example, cannot mandate a recall of tainted food.

Although great public concern exists about food safety after a series of high-profile cases, Congress has been unable to move forward with legislation to improve the situation. The House passed a bill this year but legislation has been stalled in the Senate. Republican Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma has stopped progress, demanding that there first be a vote on earmarks before food safety.

Earmarks over food safety? He can’t be serious.

Coburn says this is a matter of the deficit — think about that if you get food poisoning this holiday season — but he’s wrong. Earmarks, which are one way members of Congress help bring federal money to their states, are a political hot topic but make up a minuscule part of the budget. Yet food safety affects everyone in the country.

Politics shouldn’t be an issue here. This is about public safety.

This legislation would give the FDA power to force recalls and give the agency more resources for inspections. That would help the agency move more quickly to stem outbreaks. It appears that the Senate may take up the bill after Thanksgiving, but it won’t be easy. The agriculture and food industries are raising their own objections.

For example, small farmers and food producers have argued against the original legislation because it treated everyone the same. The New York Times reported Saturday on how the FDA’s regulations seem more fit for large producers than family farmers.

Democratic Sen. Jon Tester of Montana, an organic farmer, hammered out an amendment to help small farmers and food producers. Tester’s plan puts the focus of the legislation on big companies because they hold the greatest risk for producing widespread outbreaks — like the massive farms that recalled millions of eggs this year due to salmonella. Tester’s amendment raised the ire of agribusiness and large food producers, which have now vowed to fight the legislation.

This is exasperating because all this fighting leaves the public vulnerable to food-borne illnesses. This bill isn’t perfect, but it’s important — and necessary. Everyone should come to an agreement on this, and Congress should move forward before the end of the year.

The public needs to be assured of the safety of the nation’s food, and this is a good first step.

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