November 18, 2010
Harkin Floor Remarks on Food Safety
WASHINGTON, D.C. – Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA), Chairman of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP), today delivered remarks on the Senate floor in support of the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act.
“To say that food safety in this country is a patchwork system is giving it too much credit,” Harkin said. “Food safety has too often become a hit-or-miss gamble, with parents obliged to roll the dice when it comes to the safety of their kids’ food. That is both frightening and unacceptable.”
Harkin is a lead sponsor of the legislation, which would overhaul our food safety system and better protect Americans against food-borne illness. The FDA Food Safety Modernization Act passed the HELP Committee without a single dissenting vote on November 18, 2009. Since then, Chairman Harkin has been working closely with Ranking Member Mike Enzi (R-WY), Senators Dick Durbin (D-IL), Judd Gregg (R-NH), Chris Dodd (D-CT) and Richard Burr (R-NC) to establish a broad coalition of bipartisan support for the legislation.
Harkin’s full remarks as prepared for delivery are below:
“Mr. President, the aim of the Food Safety Modernization Act, very simply, is to bring our Nation’s antiquated and increasingly inadequate food safety system into the 21st century. This bill takes a robust, comprehensive approach to reform of the current system. And I am pleased to report that it is the product of excellent bipartisan collaboration on the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, which I chair.
“In particular, I would like to salute Senators Durbin and Gregg, who have worked tirelessly over many, many months and years to produce the excellent bill that was reported out of the HELP Committee on November 18 of last year. And I would also like to thank our committee’s ranking member, Senator Enzi, for his own leadership in bringing this bill to the floor, today. Lastly to my good friend Senator Dodd who has also been working on the bill from the beginning and adding his expertise especially on food allergies and Senator Burr who has been personally involved on a day to day basis.
“Mr. President, Senators often talk about the importance of addressing so-called 'kitchen table' issues – the practical, everyday concerns of working Americans. Well, food safety is literally a 'kitchen table' issue. And it couldn’t be more urgent or absurdly overdue. It is shocking to think that the last comprehensive overhaul of America’s food safety system was in 1938 – more than 7 decades ago.
“On the whole, Americans enjoy safe and wholesome food. The problem is that 'on the whole' just is not good enough.
“As you can see from this chart, recent food-borne outbreaks in America have been wide in scope and have had a devastating impact on public health.
“When kids die from eating peanut-butter sandwiches their mothers pack for lunch, we have a problem.
“When people get sick – and many die – from eating bagged spinach and lettuce, we have a problem.
“When cookie dough sold in supermarkets contains deadly E. coli, we have a problem.
“When 1,000 Americans get sick from eggs that have been recalled for possible Salmonella contamination, it is undeniable that we have a problem.
“The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that food-borne illnesses cause approximately 76 million illnesses a year, including 325,000 hospitalizations and 5,000 deaths. According to Georgetown University, these food-borne illnesses costs the United States $152 BILLION per year in medical expenses, lost productivity, and disability.
“Those numbers are just staggering. As this chart shows, the cost of food-borne illnesses in my home state of Iowa alone is nearly $1.5 BILLION per year.
“These things are totally intolerable. And yet, apparently, we tolerate them!
“Well, no more! We can no longer tolerate the unnecessary pain, suffering, and death caused by America’s antiquated, inadequate food safety system.
“Let’s put it plainly: Our current regulatory system is broken. It does not adequately protect Americans from serious, widespread food-borne illnesses.
“Our meals have grown more complex, with much more varied ingredients and diverse methods of preparation. By the time raw agricultural products find their way to our dinner plates, multiple intermediate steps and processes have taken place. Food ingredients typically travel thousands of miles from farms to factories to fork and they are intermingled and mixed together along the way. Yet despite dramatic changes in our tastes, as well as in methods of production and distribution, our food safety laws have not changed.
“OK, so what do we need to do?
“For starters, we need improved processes to prevent the contamination of foods – methods to provide safe food to consumers. To achieve this, more testing and better methods of tracking food can be utilized to verify that the processes are working.
“Thirty years ago, the nation had 70,000 food processors and the FDA inspectors made only 35,000 visits a year to cover these processors. Even that level of oversight was inadequate. But, today, a full decade into the 21st century, we have 150,000 food processors, twice as many plants, and the problem has grown far worse. Today FDA inspectors make just 6,700 visits each year, only one-fifth as many visits as was the case three decades ago. This is absurdly inadequate. It is a wide-open door to an endless series of outbreaks of food-borne illness.
“The FDA Food Safety Modernization Act overhauls our food safety system in four critical ways:
• It improves prevention of food safety problems
• It improves detection of response to food-borne illness outbreaks when they do occur
• It enhances our nation’s food defense capabilities, and
• It increases FDA resources
“Mr. President, the bill before the Senate, today, will dramatically increase FDA inspections at all food facilities. And it does much more. It will give FDA the following new authorities:
• It requires all food facilities to have in place preventive plans to address identified hazards and to prevent adulteration; and it gives FDA access to those plans.
• It expands FDA’s access to records in a food emergency.
• It requires importers to verify the safety of imported food.
• It strengthens surveillance systems to detect food-borne illnesses.
• It requires the Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services to establish a pilot project to test and evaluate new methods for rapidly tracking foods in the event of a food-borne illness outbreak.
• And, as I previously mentioned, this bill gives FDA the authority to order a mandatory recall of food.
“Mr. President, I believe we have hit the sweet spot with this legislation. It is a bipartisan bill and it is strongly supported by the consumer groups and industry. I have received letters from the Grocery Manufacturing Association, US Chamber of Commerce, National Restaurant Association, The PEW Charitable Trust, Consumers Union, Center for Science in the Public Interest, and Trust for America’s Health, to name a few. This is a rarity when I can say both the Chamber of Commerce and CSPI are on the same page. Here are several letters of support by both groups and a joint letter that both industry and consumer groups have signed. I would like to submit these letters for the record.
“Mr. President, as I have observed many times, to say that food safety in this country is a patchwork system is giving it too much credit. Food safety has too often become a hit-or-miss gamble, with parents obliged to roll the dice when it comes to the safety of their kids’ food. That is both frightening and unacceptable.
“It is past time – to modernize U.S. food safety laws and regulations. We also need to give FDA the resources and the authority it needs to cope with the growing, varied risks that threaten today’s more abundant and diverse food supply.
“We need to act – and we need to act now. I urge my colleagues to join the bipartisan sponsors in passing this important legislation and vote for cloture this afternoon on the Food Safety Modernization Act of 2010.”