The recall of half a billion eggs last month, after more than 1,600 Americans fell ill with salmonella food poisoning, might seem a sufficient impetus to jolt even this highly polarized Congress into legislative action.
Not so fast. Efforts to pass a major food safety bill ground to a halt yesterday (20 September), the victim of partisan wrangling.
The dramatic backdrop for action certainly was there, as victims of the outbreak testified at a hearing about nearly losing their lives, and the heads of the two Iowa companies that shipped the tainted eggs were pummeled by angry members of the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on oversight and investigations. (One of the executives, Orland Bethel, the silver-haired president of Hillandale Farms of Iowa, invoked his Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination and refused to answer questions from the panel members.) Along with witness statements, you can see a fairly grisly photo gallery here, documenting the conditions that Food and Drug Administration (FDA) inspectors documented at the farms last month.
Rep. Bart Stupak, the Michigan Democrat who chairs the subcommittee, was at pains to make sure that none of the tawdry detail of the conditions at the Iowa henhouses was lost on his audience: “Live rodents were located in the laying houses. We have liquid manure oozing out of buildings….We have dead and decaying chickens found at the sites….live and dead flies too numerous to count.” Most important, he noted, inspectors found at both farms the same strain of salmonella enteritidis that sickened 1,608 people, including in the feed mill and in water used to wash the eggs.
Austin DeCoster, the owner of Wright County Egg, the other company that shipped tainted eggs, told Stupak and his colleagues: “We were horrified to learn that our eggs may have made people sick,” and added that “I have prayed several times each day for all of these people, for their improved health.”
Democrats on the committee implored the Senate to act on stalled food safety legislation, pointing out that the House did so 14 months ago.
But across Capitol Hill, physician and senator Tom Coburn, (Republican Oklahoma), staged a one-man stoppage of the food safety bill which is much like one passed by the House last summer. He argued that its price tag – an estimated $1.4 billion over the next five years, according to the Congressional Budget Office — is too high.
“Everybody in this body wants safe food. Even me,” Coburn said in a speech on the Senate floor late yesterday afternoon. “But I won’t take a bill that isn’t paid for and that [comes] out of the hides of our children and grandchildren.”
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, shot back at Coburn in a statement yesterday evening, arguing that the bill would boost food safety “without adding a dime to the deficit.” Reid continued: “Senate Republicans led by Senator Coburn have decided to take their political obstruction to the extreme level of blocking this common-sense legislation in order to score political points.”
The bill would give FDA new power to issue mandatory recalls of tainted foods, and to subpoena records from companies. It would institute new traceback regulations allowing quick tracking of tainted foods. And the House bill—but not the Senate version – would impose a new registration fee on companies, effectively funding the over-stretched FDA to conduct more inspections.
Joshua Sharfstein, the deputy FDA commissioner, who also testified at the House hearing, told the panel: “We need this bill. We need this bill to protect the safety of the food supply. We need this bill to help us prevent another egg outbreak. “
Coburn wasn’t moved; he withheld the go-ahead that would have allowed a unanimous Senate to move the bill to the floor for debate.
For a comprehensive timeline of this summer’s salmonella outbreak put together by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, see here.
And watch this space. Word last night was that more Senate action on the bill could be forthcoming today.