H.R. 2479, the Food Safety Enhancement Act of 2009, was passed out of the House Energy and Commerce Health subcommittee without amendments on June 10 and should be considered by the full committee by June 17 and perhaps delivered to the full House by July 4.
The bill approved June 10 was revised from an earlier draft version, dropping user fees for inspections from $1,000 to $500 per facility and the overall cap limit per company to $175,000.
Though the bill is a work in progress, Tom Stenzel, president of the Washington, D.C.-based United Fresh Produce Association, emphasized the subcommittee's work was another step in transforming U.S. food safety laws and addressing the need for improvement for ensuring greater consumer confidence in fresh produce.
"We applaud the subcommittee, both Democrats and Republicans, for taking this important step and creating a strong legislative framework that will help modernize our country's food safety programs," Stenzel said in an e-mail statement to the media.
Stenzel said United Fresh would look for opportunities to strengthen the legislation as it moves to the full committee and then to the full House.
"This is a definitely a serious attempt to improve food safety," said Kathy Means, vice president of government relations and public affairs for the Produce Marketing Association, Newark, Del.
She said PMA believes the committee is willing to listen to industry concerns. "We're confident we can work with them."
The food safety bill could be on the House bill by July 4, said Robert Guenther, senior vice president of public policy for United Fresh.
"I think they want to get this off their docket and look at health care," he said.
Guenther said some Republican amendments were offered but withdrawn, but none of them had major significance to the produce industry.
"Seeing people at work in the last week, there is a very strong commitment to have a bipartisan bill come out of committee," he said June 10. "I think that bodes well for quick passage in the House."
United Fresh was pleased with the bill's language about research and country-of-origin labeling. Guenther said the language allowed for existing farm bill law about country-of-origin labeling to stand.
At the same time, he said United Fresh does not want user fees to be included in the final bill and wants to fine-tune the language on traceability.
On the other hand, Erik Olson, director of food and consumer product safety for the Pew Health Group, said Pew would have liked to see the $1,000 fee per facility remain in place. Pew Health Group is part of The Pew Charitable Trusts, an independent non-profit at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., .
"It's not an inconsequential change in terms of the money that could be raised," he said, adding that Pew also prefers more frequent inspection for high-risk facilities than is outlined in the legislation.
Considering the quick pace of the House Energy and Commerce committee's work, Olson said there would be multiple opportunities to bring the bill to the House floor before the August recess.
(Clarification note: This article has been updated to clarify Erik Olson's affiliation with the Pew Health Group.)