Former Rep. Stenholm blasts FDA, food safety regs

By Aarian Marshall

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.



WASHINGTON, Feb. 20, 2014 - Former Democratic Congressman Charles Stenholm took at shot at FDA's implementation of the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) Wednesday, saying the agency's proposals aren't based on “sound science.”

Stenholm, currently a senior adviser at OFW Law, was the moderator at a Farm Foundation event on the implementation of FSMA, taking time at the end of the two-hour panel discussion to present his own views.

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“When I put my budget hat on, I would not be very supportive of giving FDA, or any other regulatory body, any more money until they demonstrate they're doing what they were supposed to in the first place,” he said.

He implied that FDA's FSMA rules are too strict, downplaying the current state of foodborne illness in the country. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that foodborne illnesses result in over 127,000 hospitalizations and some 3,000 deaths each year.

The country has the “most abundant supply, the best quality, (and) the safest (food) supply at the lowest cost,” he said. “It's a trade-off.”

“(Those) hospitalizations (are) out of a billion meals - is it possible we'll ever get to zero?” Stenholm asked.

“I am aware of people who have a tremendous amount of influence in food safety conversation who are not using sound science,” Stenholm continued, offering anti-biotechnology activists as an example. “Until there is some scientific evidence that they are right, why should there be, by law or regulations, imposed some costs on food industry that will do tremendous damage to the hungry of the world?”

It's not the first time Stenholm, former ranking member of the House Agriculture Committee, has questioned the role of FDA in regulating the country's food safety. In 2008, as rumors swirled that the former congressman could be then-President-elect Barack Obama's pick for Agriculture Secretary, Stenholm suggested to the Houston Chronicle that food safety authority should be given to USDA.

“We don't have in place a system that can adequately deal with food safety,” he said at the time. “If we can bring USDA into the 21st century with technology, we are going to be awesome.”

In 2010, Congress re-affirmed FDA's place in the food safety regulation regime by giving it authority over implementation of FSMA, the first major update to the U.S. food safety system since 1938.

But FDA has had to scramble to make its first foray into farm regulations. Dennis Nuxoll, vice president of federal government affairs at Western Growers Association and another panel participant, gave the agency credit for what it had done thus far, pointing out that Congress charged the agency with, among other things, determining the pathogenic potential of water on all farms producing all crops.

“We think the FDA did a very good job in executing the FSMA,” he said - just before launching into a list of Western Growers' qualms. Those include the role of crop ownership in rule implementation, exemptions for farms based on size, and the current proposal for rote testing of water, among others.

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