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Amid salmonella cases, farm bill dodges food safety

It omits some proposals legislators once offered. Defenders say the bill is not the right vehicle.

WASHINGTON - A nationwide salmonella outbreak attributed to tomatoes comes just as Congress and President Bush are finishing a farm bill that omits some high-profile food-safety proposals that lawmakers once offered.

"Food safety is never a key issue for any farm bill," Chris Waldrop, the food-policy director for the Consumer Federation of America, said yesterday.

The omissions appear particularly relevant now, as at least 167 people in 17 states have fallen ill from salmonella poisoning since mid-April. The Food and Drug Administration is urging consumers to avoid raw Roma, plum or red round tomatoes. Restaurants including McDonald's have removed them from their menus temporarily.

This isn't a one-of-a-kind occurrence. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 300,000 Americans are hospitalized each year, and 5,000 die, because of food-borne illnesses. The farm bill nonetheless remains silent on many food-safety issues.

The Senate, for instance, originally wanted a new 15-member food-safety commission to conduct a wide-ranging study and issue recommendations. The proposed commission was opposed in the House, and negotiators killed it.

Similarly, Rep. Dennis Cardoza (D., Calif.) wanted to move border plant and animal inspectors back to the Agriculture Department. The demoralized inspectors feel shortchanged under the Department of Homeland Security, congressional investigators said. The Bush administration opposed the transfer, and the provision died.

"The agriculture committees' orientation is not food safety," Waldrop said. "You can make small, incremental steps, but you are never going to make big structural food-safety changes through a farm bill."

There are several reasons for that.

The House and Senate agriculture committee members who write the farm bill tend to be protective of agribusiness. They aren't out to make enemies by imposing strict new rules.

Responsibility for food safety is scattered among some 15 federal agencies. The farm bill focuses on the Agriculture Department, which handles meat and poultry. Produce and seafood are handled by the Food and Drug Administration.

Some lawmakers also feared that a food safety commission would sap momentum for a more ambitious FDA overhaul. Tomorrow, a House Energy and Commerce Committee panel will hold a hearing on the FDA's food-safety work, with some House members pressing to give the federal agency mandatory-recall authority over tainted food.

"This situation is another chilling example of the flaws in our nation's food-safety system," declared Rep. Diana DeGette (D., Colo.).

In other cases, farm-bill authors retreated from measures that some feared would undermine food safety.

Western fruit and vegetable growers, for instance, hoped that the farm bill would authorize self-regulation through industry-run marketing orders. Handlers of California leafy greens imposed such a plan after a 2006 outbreak of sickness traced to Salinas-area spinach tainted by E. coli bacteria. Environmentalists successfully opposed the idea of giving industry more power to regulate itself.

"It is clear from the California leafy-green experience that it is bad for natural resources and environmental protection," said Ferd Hoefner, the policy director for the Sustainable Agriculture Coalition.