WASHINGTON–In May, it was romaine lettuce contaminated with E. coli bacteria. In June, lobster meat found with Listeria. And most recently, eggs tainted with Salmonella.

All these products, and dozens more, have been pulled from grocery store shelves in Connecticut in recent months. Meanwhile in Washington, a food safety bill has been languishing for more than a year.

Consumer advocates had hoped that this summer’s high-profile recall–involving more than 500 million eggs yanked from supermarkets around the country and an estimated 1,500 reported illnesses–would provide fresh impetus for Congress to pass an overhaul of the nation’s food safety laws.

But this week, when Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid tried to move forward with the bill, a Republican senator objected and blocked further action for now. Negotiations are still underway, with Democratic leaders looking for ways to push the legislation forward in the coming days. But the prospects are murky.

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Rep. Rosa DeLauro: Life and death issues

“We are talking about, in a number of instances, life and death issues here,” said Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-3rd District, a major proponent of the legislation. “It’s really unbelievable that we have a situation like the egg recall, and you have one U.S. senator holding up this piece of legislation.”

That one senator is Tom Coburn, R-Okla., nicknamed “Dr. No” by his foes in the Capitol. Coburn is a medical doctor, and he has made ample use of the Senate’s rules allowing senators to hold or block bills they oppose.

Coburn says that, like DeLauro, he is appalled by the most recent raft of recalls. But noting that it has taken more than a decade for key federal agencies, such as the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, to craft a new rule on egg safety, Coburn said the answer is not necessarily more regulations or more federal spending.

“Why not hold the agency accountable for what it is already supposed to be doing, instead of passing more laws and spending more money?” Coburn asked.

No one disputes that the current food-safety system is not working. Every year, there are about 76 million food-borne illnesses in the United States, with 5,000 deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In Connecticut last year, there were at least 1,200 laboratory-confirmed cases of food-borne disease, CDC data shows. Experts say that those are just most severe incidents, in which people sought medical attention, and therefore probably only reflect a fraction of the actual cases. Of the 85 food recalls issues in the last 14 months, 50 have affected Connecticut, according to a recent report by ConnPIRG, a liberal advocacy group that has pushed for tighter regulation of the food industry.

“Many of the statutes that govern food safety today are over 100 years old,” DeLauro said. “They go back to the time of Upton Sinclair and ‘The Jungle’.”

Under current law, the FDA’s ability to deal with potential safety issues is limited mostly to reacting after a problem has emerged-once consumers have gotten sick and doctors have started reporting suspect illnesses. Even then, FDA officials cannot require companies to recall a tainted product, relying instead on the voluntary efforts of industry. The agency doesn’t have the manpower or money for a robust inspection system, consumer advocates say, and many companies feel free to ignore its recommended safety fixes because of weak enforcement.

“This bill changes that dynamic,” said David Plunkett, a senior staff attorney at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a Washington advocacy group. “It says prevention is FDA’s mission” and dramatically ramps up the agency’s powers.

The House passed its version of the legislation last summer. That proposal, among other things, would:

  • Give the FDA recall authority
  • Require the agency to conduct more frequent inspections of food processing plants
  • Establish a trace-back system so officials have more tools to determine the origin of tainted product causing illnesses
  • Increase criminal penalties on companies that violate safety standards.

“It’s a major step forward,” said DeLauro, who supported the legislation even though it did not go as far as she has advocated in the past, including her proposal to create a single food-safety agency with broad powers.

The Senate bill is not as aggressive as the House-passed bill, but consumer groups say it still would be a significant improvement. Plunkett said the Senate bill would result in fewer and less severe food-related outbreaks. “You wouldn’t have these outbreaks where you’ve got 1,000 illnesses before FDA even knows they should ask for a recall,” he said.

Even industry groups, like the Grocery Manufacturers of America and Food Marketing Institute, have been pushing for final passage. Hard-hit by incidents involving contaminated spinach, peanuts, peppers and other foods, the industry hopes the measure will restore public confidence in the U.S. food supply system.

Coburn, however, says the measure simply adds a new layer to an “already disjointed and duplicative” food safety system. His biggest beef, though, is with the $1.4 billion price tag over five years. He says the measure is not fully paid for, although the funding would actually come through an appropriations bill for FDA, not this overhaul.

“At best, we are just passing it for a press release,” Coburn argued in a detailed objection to the measure. “At worst, we shackle the FDA with unfunded mandates.”

Even if Coburn allows the bill to move forward, the measure doesn’t face an easy path. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., wants to offer a controversial amendment banning the chemical bisphenol A, which some experts say has harmful health effects, from baby bottles and similar products. And Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., is looking at ways to exempt small producers from some of the new regulations, a provision consumer groups and others say would water down the bill.

Still, proponents said those issues can be easily reconciled if Coburn releases his hold on the bill and Senate debate begins. “But that’s a fast-closing window,” said Plunkett, noting that Congress is set to wrap up legislative business by early October.

DeLauro said she is holding out hope for action in a lame-duck session after the elections. Otherwise, she said, “you have left people with doubts in their minds about the food we put in the table for our families, and that is unconscionable.”

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