Democrats push food safety bill despite concerns

WASHINGTON, April 24 (Reuters) - Democratic lawmakers said on Thursday new user fees and other proposals would help give the U.S. Food and Drug Administration much needed resources to improve the safety of the U.S. food supply, but critics said such measures could do more harm than good.

The move to bolster food and drug protection, included in draft legislation introduced in the House of Representatives last week, comes after safety concerns involving U.S.-made spinach and peanut butter, along with problems tied to contaminated ingredients made in China that were later used in pet food and the blood-thinner drug heparin.

"The agency is starved for resources and cannot meet its basic responsibility," Rep. John Dingell, chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said at a hearing on the bill.

The measure, he said, "will focus on efforts to seek real legislative conclusions to what is, in fact, a public health crisis."

The FDA has faced intense criticism from lawmakers and consumer groups that it has been too passive in handling changes in the food supply -- particularly the surge of imports and growing consumer demand for fresh produce.

The agency is in charge of 80 percent of the U.S. food supply, mostly fruits, vegetables and processed foods.

The draft legislation, crafted by Dingell and other Democratic lawmakers, would require U.S. food manufacturers and those exporting goods to the United States to pay $2,000 for each facility they operate.

The fee would generate $600 million, more than doubling the agency's current food safety budget.

The proposal also would require country-of-origin labeling for produce and processed foods, and mandate FDA to inspect food plants and their food-safety plans every four years. FDA also would be given the authority to conduct mandatory recalls.

"Foodborne outbreaks and recalls in recent years have caused a dramatic loss in consumer confidence," said Caroline Smith DeWall, a director of food safety at the nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest. "While each stakeholder may differ on the particulars, the ... act offers an unprecedented opportunity for Congress to pass strong legislation."

Republican lawmakers, the FDA and the food industry were quick to object to parts of the legislation.

Stephen Sundlof, director of the FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, said the agency was concerned the draft legislation spreads too much funding and resources across a broader area of inspection instead of allowing FDA to target high-risk foods.

"We have limited resources and we want to use those ... as judiciously as we can to target those products that we believe have the greatest potential to cause harm to public health," Sundlof said.

Republican lawmakers and the Grocery Manufacturers Association added that while they supported efforts to improve food safety, they strongly opposed user fees.

Cal Dooley, president of the GMA, said the fees would lead to "$1 billion in taxes on food products, which will show up in increased costs at the grocery store shelves."

The Bush administration issued a report last November that highlighted several of the changes proposed by Congress, including mandatory recall authority. (Editing by Walter Bagley)