Food safety legislation is coming, and the agricultural industry must watch for it and be involved in shaping it. Otherwise, agriculture could be over-regulated with little improvement for consumers, says Cathleen Enright, Western Growers Association.

Enright, who moderated a food safety panel at the recent Texas Produce Convention in McAllen, said the climate is ripe for food safety issues. More than 30 bills are making their way through the U.S. Congress, some of which will serve consumers and agriculture better than others. Many, however, appear to lack adequate funding to be effective. “Food safety interest has been high for years,” she said. But recent issues with salmonella in peppers, contaminated peanut butter, and melamine in products from China have brought the issue into sharper focus.

“All these issues have helped shape the direction Washington, D.C. is heading. And even though people have been affected with food borne illnesses, the United States still has the safest food supply in the world.”

Enright said consumer groups are demanding action from Washington. “They question confidence in U.S. oversight; they question USDA and FDA abilities to protect the U.S. food supply; and they question outmoded and outdated regulations.

“Also, agencies have been gutted of personnel and in FDA the drug side is always the higher priority and will always out-compete food for time and resources.”

Enright said the Bush administration response to food safety last year “overwhelmed Congress. It covered the basics of prevention, intervention and response — and the FDA asked for more regulator authority.”

She said Congress found “a lack of specifics in the administration’s plan. And there was no new money for programs.”

Currently, 30 or more bills in various stages of development in Congress propose changes to food safety programs. Changes include:

– Recognition of food safety responsibilities.

– Improved oversight and certification with recall authority.

– Standards and practices for producers, processors and retailers.

– Traceability systems (electronic).

– Improved ability to sample and detect.

Enright said some bills have been revamped. One in particular “was horrible for the industry. It’s being reworked.”

She said funding remains an issue. “As much as $1 billion is needed to get food safety on track. The administration proposal is for $42 million to $49 million.”

Enright said mandatory recall authority “is coming. That’s not as scary as it sounds and will be used only if voluntary recall doesn’t work.” Authorizing export certificates is another possibility. “Traceability is coming, too,” she said.

Enright said action on these or other bills likely will not occur until 2009. “Food safety will be a priority for the next Congress.” She said funding questions remain. “We need fixes but where will the money come from?”

She also said the industry is in a good position to shape policy. “The industry has gained credibility over the last nine months. Congress is listening and that will help us get better legislation.”

e-mail: rsmith@farmpress.com