Washington Update: Farm Bill & Food Safety High on Agenda

As Congress worked toward passage of a new Farm Bill, the question of what foods should be available to students in public schools attracted considerable attention on Capitol Hill.
Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), chairman of the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee, has been working to include in the Farm Bill a requirement that the federal government set new nutritional standards for the foods and drinks sold to students outside the cafeteria.
The bill, called the Child Nutrition Promotion and School Lunch Protection Act of 2007, was introduced in March and is co-sponsored by 24 members of the Senate. A companion bill pending in the House of Representatives has 91 co-sponsors.
Snack Food Association president and CEO Jim McCarthy and the association’s lobbying team, headed by public affairs advisor Mike Torrey, have been working with industry allies in an effort to prevent undue restrictions on snack food products. McCarthy points out that the SFA supports voluntary standards developed by the Alliance for a Healthier Generation, rather than mandatory requirements imposed by law.
However, McCarthy adds, “If government standards are established, then they need to be uniform across the country, not a collection of possibly conflicting state laws that would make compliance virtually impossible.”
As the Farm Bill was moving forward in the Senate, the SFA also was working to prevent restrictions on foods provided under the School Lunch and Food Stamp programs.  
Food Safety
Meanwhile, Capitol Hill paid considerable attention to food safety issues this fall.
During a hearing by the House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee in late September, Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Commissioner David Acheson said his agency needs more powers to police the nation’s food supply, particularly where imports are involved.
Late in September, Congress gave final passage to the FDA Amendments Act of 2007, which establishes a Reportable Food Registry and imposes new reporting and notification requirements on the food industry. Within nine months, the FDA is required to publish guidance for the industry concerning these newly required reports. Then, within one year, industry is required to begin making reports, which will involve new recordkeeping requirements.
Other food safety legislation being considered includes the following:
• The Safe Food Act of 2007, introduced on February 15, would establish a single agency to oversee food safety. It would combine food safety functions of the USDA, the FDA, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s seafood inspection program.
• The Imported Food Security Act of 2007, introduced on July 12, traces the rising tide of imported foods and calls for collection of fees on imports, establishment of research to produce testing methods that will be used for inspections, establishment of a certification program for imported food, and enforcement protocols.
• The Human and Pet Food Safety Act of 2007, introduced on May 2, amends existing law related to adverse effects, inspections and recalls and includes provisions for civil sanctions for violating notification and recall standards.
• The Assured Food Safety Act of 2007, introduced on July 11, would have the Secretary of Agriculture and the FDA commissioner require a certificate of assured safety for imported food items. The bill includes inspection requirements and assessments of fees on imports, and would allow U.S. citizens harmed by imported food to bring a civil action court against the importer.
Meanwhile, in mid-September, the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) proposed legislation it said would strengthen, modernize and improve government oversight of imported food and ingredients. The proposed public-private partnership is called “Commitment to Consumers: The Four Pillars of Food Safety.”
The proposal would require all importers of record to adopt a foreign supplier quality assurance program and verify that imported ingredients and products meet U.S. FDA food safety and quality requirements. The program would be based on FDA guidance and industry best practices, monitored and enforced by FDA.
The FDA would focus greater resources on products and countries deemed of higher risk through a program under which food companies and importers would qualify their products as lower risk by sharing test results, data and supply chain information with the FDA confidentially. Qualifying products and ingredients would receive expedited treatment at the borders.
The measure also focuses on building capacity within foreign governments to facilitate food safety standards that are more closely aligned with those at FDA.