U.S. House farm bill would delay food safety law

July 11 Thu Jul 11, 2013 6:06pm EDT

July 11 (Reuters) - The Republican-controlled U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill on Thursday that could significantly delay implementation of sweeping new food safety legislation designed to reduce food-borne illnesses.

The House version of the farm bill would cut certain farm subsidies, expand the crop insurance program and give new subsidies to peanut, cotton and rice farmers.

While new amendments were not allowed, the bill included elements from a previous version, including a provision introduced by Republican Dan Benishek of Michigan, that would delay introduction of the Food Safety Modernization Act, which was signed into law in January 2011.

Benishek is demanding that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which is charged with implementing the food safety law and is still in the process of discussing its implications with the agricultural community, conduct an additional cost and scientific analysis.

He says farmers in his district will be hurt by the law, which, among other things, would require regular testing of agricultural water to monitor for contamination.

"It stops the food safety bill in its tracks because you don't know how long it will take the FDA to do this study," said Sandra Eskin, director of food safety at The Pew Charitable Trusts. "Congress worked really hard at getting the food safety act passed and this amendment really undermines that law."

However, the fate of the House farm bill is uncertain. The White House on Wednesday had threatened to veto it on several grounds, including the omission of food stamps for the poor. It would also have to be reconciled with the Senate's version.

More than 3,000 people in the United States die each year from food-borne illnesses, according to federal data. One in six are sickened and 100,000 hospitalized from illnesses tied to such pathogens as salmonella, E. coli and listeria.

The 2011 food safety law is designed to move the FDA into preventive mode from the reactive mode in which it has operated historically, swooping in only after an outbreak has occurred. It gives the agency increased powers to inspect facilities and enforce compliance with safety standards.

The new regulations lay out a myriad of standards, some less stringent than others, depending on the assessed risk of a particular product or facility. As part of its fiscal 2014 budget request of $4.7 billion, the FDA said $295.8 million would be earmarked to implement the food safety law. (Reporting by Toni Clarke in Washington; Editing by Tim Dobbyn)