Members of Congress expected to hear constituent views on key reform initiatives

by Jay Sjerven
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WASHINGTON — Members of Congress have left Washington for an August recess during which they will meet with constituents on three far-reaching reform efforts: health care, climate change and food safety. The least controversial of these was the effort to enact food safety reform legislation in the fall as broad bipartisan support has emerged for strengthening the Food and Drug Administration. Debates over how best to craft climate change and health care legislation were far more contentious with Republicans and Democrats mostly at loggerheads and Democrats often sparring amongst themselves. Food industry groups have weighed in on all three reform debates.

It is remarkable to be able to say food safety reform efforts lacked significant controversy. But over the past couple of years, consumers and the food industry were afflicted by a series of foodborne disease outbreaks and imported food scandals. In their wake, few in Congress or in board rooms across the country argued the nation’s food safety system requiredno repair. Certainly, food industry associations voiced pointed criticisms about some specifics of proposed legislation, but the need for a strong food safety act was accepted by nearly everyone.

The House of Representatives on July 30, by a vote of 283 to 142, passed its food safety bill, the Food Safety Enhancement Act of 2009, H.R. 2749. Key provisions included granting mandatory recall authority to the F.D.A.; requiring annual registration with the F.D.A. by food processors, importers and handlers; annual inspection of food processing operations determined to be high risk; and the creation of a traceability system that will allow inspectors to trace a product’s origin within two days.

"House passage of the Food Safety Enhancement Act of 2009 marks an important milestone," said Pamela G. Bailey, president and chief executive officer, Grocery Manufacturers Association. "This legislation will strengthen our nation’s food safety net by placing prevention as the cornerstone of our nation’s food safety strategy and providing F.D.A. with the resources and authorities it needs to adequately fulfill its food safety mission. Combined with increased industry and vigilance, this legislation represents a once in a lifetime opportunity to modernize our food safety system and restore the public’s faith in the safety and security of the food supply."

Ms. Bailey said the G.M.A. hoped the Senate would "swiftly follow suit and pass its food safety bill as soon as possible."

The Senate bill, the Food Safety Modernization Act of 2009, or S. 510, whose chief sponsor is Senator Richard Durbin of Illinois, was referred to the Committee on Health, Education, Welfare and Pensions. Should the committee approve the bill, it will be forwarded to the full Senate for a vote. This was expected to take place in the fall.

Some food industry associations, while confirming support for the goals and even most of the provisions of the House bill, criticized some aspects of the legislation, particularly those involving facility registration fees and how the F.D.A. would interact with industry on hazard control programs.

"The unfortunate impact of this bill will mean higher costs for food producers and consumers," said Robb MacKie, president of the American Bakers Association. "The registration fees included in this bill greatly impact the baking industry. Only 10% of our facilities produce baked goods, while 90% of our facilities are low-risk, short-term storage facilities.

"A.B.A. will continue its outreach efforts with the broader food industry, to Congress and the Obama administration to address food safety issues and develop effective solutions moving forward."

The National Grain and Feed Association also expressed concerns about what it called a "one-size-fits-all" registration fee without exemptions for already-licensed grain warehouse and export facilities. The N.G.F.A. said the fees will be incurred by thousands of grain elevators nationwide.

The organization also was concerned about how the F.D.A. would establish hazard controls for specific product types to prevent unintentional contamination.

"Troublingly, the bill would authorize F.D.A. officials down to the district office director level to establish such controls," said the N.G.F.A.

"The members of the North American Millers’ Association are committed to producing safe products," said Elizabeth A. (Betsy) Faga, president of NAMA. "We support Congress’ efforts to strengthen the country’s food and animal feed safety systems based on sound science and a risk-based approach. We look forward to being part of the dialogue on Capitol Hill as the food safety discussions get under way in the Senate."

Health care reform is the top legislative priority of the Obama administration. President Barack Obama had hoped both the House of Representatives and the Senate would have passed health care bills before the August recess, but progress was difficult amid uneasiness evidenced particularly but not exclusively by Republican legislators over the creation of a federal government insurance program to compete with insurance companies and the overall cost of health care reform.

Just before the recess, the House Committee on Energy and Commerce passed its version of the House health care bill by a vote of 31 to 28, with all of the Republicans on the panel and five Democrats voting against the bill. The Energy and Commerce Committee was the last of three House panels required to act on the legislation. A vote on a final House bill was expected in September.

All versions of the House health care bill contained a government insurance plan. Also, the bill would

require insurance companies to sell coverage to all seeking it, without exclusions for preexisting medical conditions. The federal government would provide subsidies for lower-income families to help them afford policies that otherwise would be out of their reach. The bill would set up so-called exchanges where consumers both with and without subsidies would be able to evaluate different policies and choose the one they wanted.

The Senate Committee on Finance has a Sept. 15 deadline to produce a bipartisan compromise on health care reform. In the absence of such a compromise, Senator Max Baucus of Montana, chairman, might produce a measure emphasizing Democratic priorities.

The A.B.A., the N.G.F.A., the International Dairy Foods Association and the American Farm Bureau Federation joined several other industry associations as well as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and 1,500 state and local chambers of commerce in sending a letter to all members of Congress urging the legislators exercise caution when considering legislation to avoid jeopardizing those aspects of the current system that work well.

The letter said creating a new government-run insurance plan would be "a step in the wrong direction." The associations stated, "We do not believe that the government plan would be a fair competitor. Because of the increased costs and lack of competition caused by a government plan, employers will not be able to continue offering their current plans, which cover more than 170 million Americans."

The letter said the groups were dedicated to improving the nation’s health care system. The groups emphasized the need to reduce health care costs, improve quality of care and provide access to affordable health care coverage to those not currently insured. "However, we believe the legislation currently being considered would not improve the system but jeopardize the parts of the system that currently work," the association said.

The industry and commerce organizations also expressed concern over any legislation that would mandate that employers either provide health insurance or pay "huge fines or payroll taxes." Even with some exemptions, the groups said, such a mandate would "kill many jobs." Instead, the business groups urged that market forces and employer autonomy, not Congress, determine the benefits employers provide.

"The business community is eager to work with Congress to reform the health care system," the association letter concluded. "We urge Congress to focus on consensus areas that accomplish our shared goals, including initiatives to improve quality and lower costs, introduce fair regulation of the insurance market and build a robust marketplace for customers."

The climate change debate is centered in the Senate as the House passed its climate change bill, The American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009, H.R. 2454, by a narrow margin in late June.

The centerpiece of the House bill is a cap-and-trade system under which greenhouse emissions expressed in carbon dioxide equivalent would be capped at 2005 levels, and allowances (permits to continue emissions) initially amounting to 80% of the cap provided free to regulated industries with the remainder of the allowances to be auctioned. The allowances would decrease over time so carbon pollution from large sources would be reduced 17% below 2005 levels by 2020 and 83% below 2005 levels in 2050.

The House bill establishes an offsets program providing credits to those establishing projects resulting in a net decrease in greenhouse gas emissions. These credits may be sold to polluting industries to increase or maintain their emission allowance or on markets expected to be established for the purpose of buying and selling of offsets.

The Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works under the chairmanship of Senator Barbara Boxer of California will be the committee chiefly responsible for crafting the Senate climate change bill.

Bakers joined other food trade organizations in urging the Senate to consider the impact proposed climate change legislation would have on the nation’s ability to provide an abundant, affordable food supply.

"If not crafted correctly, climate-change legislation could significantly increase the price of food, especially the staples of a basic diet such as bread and other baked products," Mr. MacKie said. "Congress must take extreme care to avoid adverse impacts on food security, prices, safety and accessibility to essential foods. Congress also needs to consider that increasing the costs of producing healthy and wholesome foods would impact one of the remaining stable domestic manufacturing sectors in our country."

The A.B.A. said climate change legislation should include the following safeguards:

1. Carbon credit allowances should be distributed in a fashion that takes into account the needs of manufacturers, distributors or retailers of food, agricultural commodity, feed or household products.

2. If an emissions cap is adopted, the Environmental Protection Agency should not be allowed to lower the cap in the future or use the Clean Air Act to regulate emissions to levels less than the cap.

3. Food processors, agricultural commodity handlers and processors, farmers, ranchers and others should be permitted to generate offsets. A well designed offset system should strike a balance between the need for affordable offsets and the need for productive farmland.

4. The legislation should preempt or harmonize state and regional climate-related programs.

5. Climate change legislation should be contingent upon Senate ratification of an international agreement among nations to reduce greenhouse gases.

6. Any climate change legislation that reduces greenhouse gas emissions also should ensure a safe and affordable supply of food, feed and other agricultural products.

This article can also be found in the digital edition of Milling and Baking News, August 11, 2009, starting on Page 1. Click here to search that archive.

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