Senate pressured to pass food safety bill after egg recall

by Jay Sjerven
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WASHINGTON — As the Senate convened Sept. 13 after a month-long recess during which a massive egg recall commanded headlines, pressure was mounting for the body to finally consider and pass The F.D.A. Food Safety Modernization Act (S. 510). The bill was amended by Democratic and Republican members of the Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions just before the August recess to address some concerns about the bill passed by the HELP committee last November and to broaden its appeal among lawmakers. The bill was ready for submission to the full Senate. Advocates were hopeful the Senate leadership would assign a date in September for deliberation and a vote.

Meanwhile, the Food and Drug Administration’s investigation into the contamination of eggs by Salmonella enteriditis at two Iowa farm complexes — Wright County Egg of Galt and Hillandale Farms of Iowa, Inc., of New Hampton — continued. The recall involved more than 550 million eggs. The outbreak was said to have sickened around 1,500 individuals between May 1 and Aug. 25, but no deaths were indicated.

The F.D.A. in late August documented numerous “significant objectionable conditions” found in egg-laying houses and related facilities operated by Wright County Egg and Hillandale Farms and pointed to several possible points of contamination. Most attention was directed to feed fed to chickens on both farms that was manufactured and supplied by a feed mill operated by Wright County Egg’s parent company, Quality Egg L.L.C.

The F.D.A. said both the feed and bone meal used as a protein supplement in the feed had traces of Salmonella. This had Wright County Egg pointing the finger at Central Bi-Products of Redwood Falls, Minn., as a possible source of the contamination because it supplied bone meal to the Quality Egg feed mill. Central Bi-Products took umbrage at the suggestion and asserted its meat meal and bone meal are heated to temperatures up to 260 degrees, which would kill any living bacteria, including Salmonella.

Both Wright County Egg and Hillandale Farms said they were cooperating fully with the F.D.A. in the investigation and in correcting problems the investigators identified. They said they would not resume shipping eggs to consumers until the F.D.A. was confident the conditions that made facilities vulnerable to Salmonella contamination had been corrected.

With Congress back in session, hearings on the Salmonella outbreak were expected to be called. Representative Bart Stupak of Michigan, chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, along with Representative Henry Waxman of California, chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee, sent letters Aug. 23 to both Wright County Egg and Hillandale Farms requesting information that may provide the background for a hearing. The oversight subcommittee held 11 food safety hearings over the past four years, and the hearings helped provide the impetus for drafting the Food Safety Enhancement Act (H.R. 2749), which was passed by a large majority in the House of Representatives in July 2009.

“Had strong reforms like those in H.R. 2749 already been in place, the F.D.A. would have had the authority to issue a mandatory recall and take aggressive steps to stop the spread of these dangerous eggs,” Mr. Stupak said. “The Senate already has countless examples and studies from the past few years as to why we need food safety reform, but this egg recall gives them yet one more. As we investigate the egg recall, I hope members of the Senate will realize how important the safety of our food supply is and pass our food safety legislation when they return in September.”

Representative Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut, chairwoman of the F.D.A. and Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee of the House Committee on Appropriations, also sent letters during the congressional recess with Margaret Hamburg, M.D., commissioner of the F.D.A., Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack and Thomas R. Frieden, M.D., M.P.H., director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as recipients. Ms. DeLauro inquired about what she said may have been significant delays in issuing official notice to consumers about the “danger of more than a half a billion contaminated eggs on the market.” She also inquired how the F.D.A. and the U.S.D.A., which share jurisdiction over eggs, worked individually and together before and during the recall with regard to Wright County Egg and Hillandale Farms and whether contaminated eggs were used in federal nutrition programs.

Ms. DeLauro said, “It has never been more clear that Congress needs to pass F.D.A. food safety legislation this year that will increase inspections at high-risk facilities, establish performance standards for reducing food-borne pathogens, and grant F.D.A. mandatory recall authority. This bill, combined with the F.D.A. egg safety rule that went into effect on July 9, could have prevented or minimized this Salmonella outbreak. In the long term, we must create a single food safety agency that consolidates the work that is currently splintered across 15 federal agencies. One agency focused exclusively on protecting our food supply would prevent jurisdictional confusion, result in an efficient and responsive food safety system, and diminish the potential for future outbreaks such as this one.”

The HELP committee seemed to have overcome one impediment to expeditious consideration of S. 510 this fall. Indications were Senator Dianne Feinstein of California, who sought to incorporate a ban on the use of bisphenol A (B.P.A.) in children’s food and beverage containers in the food safety bill, instead will offer her amendment from the floor and abide by an up-or-down vote.
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