The Tea Party May Have Lost the Food Fight

The tea party may claim they’re against ‘big government’ and ‘regulation’ in any form, but it’s clear they weren’t any type of driving force in stopping the food safety bill. Yesterday, 11/30/2010, the Senate finally passed the Food Safety Enhancement Act (S. 510), 73 to 25.

S.510 must now be reconciled with a House version that was approved more than a year ago, or be passed by the House, before it can be forwarded on to the President for signature. The House passed an earlier version of the bill in 2009, but the Senate version has significant changes that include an exception for some food producers who have annual revenue of less than $500,000. And that same Senate bill also includes (in Section 107) a set of fees that are classified as revenue raisers, which are technically taxes under the Constitution. Under the Constitution, ‘revenue’ bills must start in the House … and the House bill (H.R. 875 doesn’t have any revenue generating provisions).

A number of House Republicans are threatening to ‘blue slip’ the bill. What that means is that a ‘rejection slip’ is given to the Senate indicating that they have generated a bill that is contrary to the Origination Clause of the U.S. Constitution. Basically, that clause (Article I, Section 7, Clause 1) provides that the House of Representatives has exclusive authority to introduce bills raising revenue. The Senate can simply circumvent this requirement by substituting the revenue-generating text into any ‘revenue’ bill passed by the House.

The blue slip could lead to one of two likely outcomes. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) could simply drop the issue and let the next session of Congress start from scratch, a strategy that would allow him time in the lame-duck session to tackle other last-minute priorities, like the Dream Act (Immigration Reform), repeal of DADT (Don’t Ask Don’t Tell), and an extension of unemployment benefits for those people unable to find employment. Or … he could try to force the issue in the Senate after the House passes a new version of the bill. However, to do that and still tackle the other issues, he would need a unanimous consent agreement to limit debate, a consent that requires 60 votes. Given that the bill passed 73 to 25, that may be possible, unless of course, Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) puts another hold on the bill until such time as he can introduce amendments.

The food safety bill would give the federal government broad new powers to finally begin policing the nation’s food system. This $1.4 billion bill aims to prevent massive outbreaks of tainted food. It would finally give the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) actual authority to order mandatory recalls and require more frequent inspections of high-risk food processing plants. It also places new responsibilities on farmers and food companies to prevent contamination, and it finally sets safety standards for imported foods which are rapidly becoming a growing part of our American diets.

“No one in America should have to worry if the food they put on the table every night is going to harm them or their families,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said in a statement. The bipartisan bill we passed today will make sure that continues to be true. Our food-safety system has not been updated in almost a century.”

The most important provisions in the bill:

  • A schedule to inspect 50,000 foreign and domestic food production facilities by 2015 (600 to be inspected in year one, doubling that number each year for 5 years)
  • Ability to directly recall tainted foods (rather than relying on food manufacturer’s to voluntarily recall it on their own)
  • Transforming the FDA from an agency that merely responds to crises, into a watchdog that can actually head off potential crises ‘before’ they can occur through policing actions at home and abroad.

There are approximately 76 million foodborne illnesses each year in the United States, according to a report released in June, “Enhancing Food Safety: The Role of the Food and Drug Administration,” which was requested by Congress. Those illnesses cause more than 300,000 hospitalizations and 5,000 deaths annually.

The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimates that the new bill would cost $1.4 billion over five years. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that foodborne illnesses cost the country $152 billion annually.

Meat products, which represent approximately 20% of our diet, will still remain regulated by the USDA.

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