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Food Safety Issues
(Released July 1999)

 

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While most experts agree that the U.S. food supply is among the safest in the world, every year food-borne pathogens in the food supply make many people ill. As consumers become aware of the serious consequences of these illnesses and as illnesses are linked to a growing variety of foods, consumers are looking to the government to further protect the food supply. The Congressional Research Service (CRS) Issue Brief, Food Safety Issues in the 106th Congress (February 12, 1999) discusses the congressional interest in oversight and legislation in this area.

As background for further discussion on this and related food safety issues, the CRS report, Food Safety Agencies and Authorities: A Primer (February 5, 1998 ) describes the roles of the primary federal and cooperating state agencies responsible for food safety and enumerates the major legislative authorities currently governing them.

CRS Issue Briefs, Fruits and Vegetables: Ongoing Issues for Congress (April 26, 1999) and Meat and Poultry Inspection Issues (December 7, 1998) examine the issues of concern to the fruit and vegetable industry and meat inspection respectively. And CRS Issue Brief, Pesticide Residue Regulation: Analysis of Food Quality Protection Act Implementation (February 4, 1999) evaluates the status of The Food Quality Protection Act of 1996 implementation and related issues.

© Copyright 1999, All Rights Reserved, CSA

 

CRS Reports

Food Safety Issues in the 106th Congress

Summary

Public health experts estimate that each year in the United States food-borne pathogens cause between 6.5 and 33 million people to get sick and 9,000 people to die from food-related illnesses. Even though these estimates are being questioned, foodborne illness remains a serious problem. Often, people do not seek medical help and their illness is not officially reported. Yet, as consumers become aware of the serious consequences of these illnesses and as illnesses are linked to a growing variety of foods, consumers are looking to the government to further protect the food supply. As a result, there is congressional interest in oversight and legislation in this area.

Several federal agencies, along with cooperating agencies in the states, are responsible for assuring the safety, wholesomeness, and proper labeling of all foods for human consumption in the United States. The Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FFDCA) gives the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) the authority to set and enforce standards for safety of all domestic and imported foods, except for meat and poultry. FDA also ensures that all animal drugs and feeds are safe, labeled properly, and produce no human health hazard when used in food-producing animals. Also under the FFDCA, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) sets legal limits (tolerances) on the amounts of pesticide residues that can be found in or on food. The Federal Meat Inspection Act and the Poultry Products Inspection Act authorize the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to set and enforce standards for the safety of red meats and poultry.

The food safety activities of those agencies consist of inspecting, testing, researching, and monitoring the food supply. In response to limited federal funding, both FDA and USDA have adopted a new approach to food safety and inspection. Known as the Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) system, it identifies where hazards could enter food during its preparation for market and steps that can be taken to prevent hazards.

In addition to HACCP, the federal agencies are implementing several presidential food safety initiatives. The first is a six-step strategic plan to minimize the risk of food-borne pathogens in the U.S. food supply. The second initiative aims to upgrade the safety of domestic and imported produce by publishing guidance on practices for growing, processing, shipping, and selling fruits and vegetables. The third established a Food Safety Council to coordinate all federal agencies' budgets for food safety activities.

The 106th Congress is considering several food safety proposals that were debated in the last Congress. Proposals may be introduced that would increase the federal government's authority to recall unsafe food products and/or prevent imports of foods from countries whose food safety systems do not provide a level of safety protection that is similar to that of the U.S. system. There could also be support among legislators for consolidating into a single, independent agency all food safety inspection and labeling activities that are currently divided among several federal agencies.

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Food Safety Agencies and Authorities: A Primer

Summary

Several federal agencies, in cooperation with state governments, are responsible for regulating the safety of the U.S. food supply. In the wake of an outbreak of food- borne illness and the largest recall of suspected contaminated meat in U.S. history in August 1997, several policymakers have reopened the debate on creating a single, independent, federal food safety agency. They assert that this would provide more effective regulatory control over the entire farm-to-table food production and marketing system by eliminating the overlapping and occasionally competing objectives of multiple agencies. As background for further discussion on this and related food safety issues, this report describes the roles of the primary federal and cooperating state agencies responsible for food safety and enumerates the major legislative authorities currently governing them.

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Fruits and Vegetables: Ongoing Issues for Congress

Summary

In the 106th Congress several bills have been proposed on issues of concern to the fruit and vegetable industry. The Imported Food Safety Act of 1999 (H.R. 830) would give the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) new authority over imported food, including fresh produce, that is comparable to the authority the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) already has for imported meat and poultry. The bill also would require country-of-origin labeling on imported foods, including fruits and vegetables, at the point of retail sale. At least two bills--the United States Agricultural Trade Act of 1999 (S. 101) and the United States Agricultural Products Market Access Act of 1999 (H.R. 450) would attempt to give U.S. commodities better access to export markets where non-tariff trade barriers such as phytosanitary measures may now block entry.

A number of fruit and vegetable issues were addressed in the 105th Congress. The Omnibus Appropriations for FY1999 (P.L. 105-277), enacted October 21, 1998, provides $80 million to support the President's Food Safety Initiative, which proposed increased inspections of imported produce, non-mandatory guidelines to minimize microbial hazards for fresh fruits and vegetables, and new regulations for fruit and vegetable juices.

P.L. 105-277 also delayed the phaseout of methyl bromide, a pesticide widely used for agricultural fumigation of the soil, exported crops, and storage and processing facilities. The phaseout was delayed from 2001 to 2005, harmonizing the U.S. schedule with the schedule required under the Montreal Protocol.

The conference report of P.L. 105-277 directed that two reports of concern to the fruit and vegetable industry be made to Congress. One required report was to determine the economic costs and benefits of the Market Access Program (MAP), which finances development of fruit and vegetable markets in foreign countries. The second report would assess the potential effects of a mandatory country-of-origin labeling law for fresh produce and identify U.S. trading partners with similar laws.

The Agricultural Research, Extension and Education Reauthorization Act of 1998 (P.L. 105-185) established the Organic Agriculture Research and Extension Initiative, which authorizes funds to conduct research to help in the development of organic agriculture. Discussion continues on the establishment of national organic standards.

The Smith/Wyden Amendment to S. 2260 (FY1999 appropriations for Commerce, Justice, State, and Judiciary) would have made changes to the H-2A program, which admits foreign agricultural workers into the United States legally on a temporary basis. The changes would have included a nationwide system of registries to provide an alternative to the illegal immigrants often used in agriculture. The amendment was not enacted, but the H-2A program is expected to be considered in the 106th Congress.

Irradiation remains an issue. It was debated in the 105th Congress as a method of controlling microorganisms and insects on fruits and vegetables and also as an alternative to the fumigant methyl bromide. The Administration has expanded irradiation research, and the FDA has recently modified regulations on the size of the irradiation disclosure statement.

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Meat and Poultry Inspection Issues

Summary

Most meat, poultry, and processed egg products must first be inspected by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA's) Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) for safety, wholesomeness, and proper labeling. Meat inspection legislation, which mandates far more intensive oversight than the program the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) administers for all other foods, dates back to 1906.

FSIS efforts to modernize its programs, long criticized as slow and ineffectual, were redoubled in the wake of a 1993 incident in which four people died and hundreds became ill from eating undercooked hamburger that had been contaminated with a virulent strain of the bacterium E. coli.

In July 1996, using existing authorities, USDA published in the Federal Register a new system of inspection in slaughtering and processing plants that is intended to focus on what most experts agree is today's chief foodborne hazard to human health -- microbiological contamination. It is built around the food safety concept known as "HACCP," the acronym for hazard analysis and critical control point, an approach that centers on preventing contamination during slaughter and processing. The rule also requires that raw products be tested for certain pathogens, among other activities aimed at reducing bacterial contamination. As of January 26, 1998, plants with 500 or more employees (which account for 75% of all U.S. slaughter production and 45% of all processed product output) must have an HACCP plan in place.

Implementation of HACCP has not quelled congressional interest in more comprehensive food safety reforms, however. In early November 1997, in response to a late-summer outbreak of foodborne illness in Colorado, followed by the largest meat recall in U.S. history (25 million pounds), legislation was introduced to give USDA direct recall and civil penalty authority. Companion measures also were introduced in both chambers that would consolidate all federal food safety-related agencies into one independent Food Safety Administration (S. 1465/H.R. 2801). On August 20,1998, the National Academy of Sciences released a report that endorses greater coordination in federal food safety activities and budgets. On August 25, President Clinton established a President's Council on Food Safety to develop a comprehensive strategic federal food safety plan, among several responsibilities.

Other issues pertaining to meat and poultry inspection include: a proposal to permit interstate sales of meat and poultry that have been inspected under state (rather than federal) programs; continued difficulties in resolving U.S.-European Union meat trade issues related to safety; and oversight to ensure that bovine spongiform encephalopathy ("mad cow disease"), which has decimated Great Britain's beef industry and raised public health questions, does not occur in the United States.

The omnibus appropriations act signed in October (P.L. 105-277) contains $617 million for FSIS for FY1999. This level is $8 million higher than the vetoed conference agreement on the agricultural appropriations bill (H.R. 4101), and all of this increase is targeted to Food Safety Initiative activities. The FY1998 appropriation for FSIS was $589 million. The conferees also defeated a proposal to require country-of-origin labeling at the retail level for imported beef and lamb.

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Pesticide Residue Regulation: Analysis of Food Quality Protection Act Implementation

Summary

The Food Quality Protection Act of 1996 (FQPA) amended the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act, governing U.S. registration, sale, and use of pesticide products, and the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, under which the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) sets allowable pesticide residue levels for food (tolerances). The FQPA directs the EPA to ensure a "reasonable certainty of no harm" due to pesticide exposure and requires reevaluation of 33% of existing tolerances against this new safety standard by August 1999, 66% by August 2002, and 100% by August 2006. The Act directs the EPA to evaluate cumulative risks of pesticides through all routes of exposure and to aggregate risks of different pesticides when they have similar toxic effects. EPA must notify or revoke tolerances that are not safe, and modify registration (labels) for the associated pesticides. EPA expects to reach the August 1999 milestone on time. The Agency has consulted with stakeholders in developing implementation policies, but issues remain contentious. Pesticide producers and users are trying to ensure that pesticides will be fairly evaluated, while environmental and consumer groups are trying to ensure prompt regulation of pesticides that are not "safe." Stakeholders disagree about what is an appropriate course of action when there is insufficient "reliable" data to estimate risk. The test case for FQPA implementation is the reevaluation of risks for organophosphate pesticides, which EPA has determined are among the pesticides posing the greatest risk. Widespread use on many crops means that some pesticides uses might have to be disallowed when the FQPA is fully implemented. It is not clear whether the promise of the FQPA will be fully realized, since contentious implementation issues remained to be solved.

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