Remember "freedom fries"? That's what the House Republicans, when they were last in the majority, renamed french fries, after France refused to support the invasion of Iraq. It seems like renaming fries might be just about the extent of food regulation that some in Congress are willing to support.
The new Republican majority threatens a barrage of investigations. California Republican Darrell Issa is the new chair of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. Issa has been tweeting about the subjects he intends to investigate: "CONTINUED INITIAL OVERSIGHT INVESTIGATIONS LINEUP: WikiLeaks, the safety of American food/medicine and effectiveness of @FDArecalls ..."
The timing of his tweet on food safety was impeccable, coming just one day before President Barack Obama was scheduled to sign into law the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act, one of the last bills passed by the House before Congress recessed in late December. The new law will give the Food and Drug Administration authority to order a food recall, among other tools intended to protect people in the U.S. from foodborne illnesses. Believe it or not, before now, the FDA could only recommend a recall, not order one.
The new law won't come in time to help Shirley Mae Almer. She died Dec. 21, 2008, after becoming infected with salmonella, which she contracted from tainted peanut butter. Almer and at least eight others died of the illness, caused by King Nut peanut butter and other products made using infected nuts from the Peanut Corporation of America. Two years have passed since Almer's death, and her family has just filed suit in federal court. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports at least 714 people were sickened by the outbreak in 46 states. The CDC says foodborne illnesses cause millions of people to get sick every year, sending 128,000 to the hospital and killing 3,000-that's more than eight people a day.
The American Public Health Association, a member of the Make Our Food Safe coalition, celebrated the bill, which, it writes, "will finally begin to address the dangerous gaps in our nation's woefully outdated food safety system." Just because a bill is signed into law, though, doesn't mean it will get funded. Republicans in Congress can still hold up funding (as it seems they will do for sections of the health insurance reform law passed last year). Rep. Jack Kingston, R-Ga., who sits on the Appropriations subcommittee that funds the FDA, told The Washington Post: "No one wants anybody to get sick, and we should always strive to make sure food is safe. But the case for a $1.4 billion expenditure isn't there."
Really? It's comforting to know that Kingston doesn't want anybody to get sick. But that doesn't alter the fact that millions do. When it comes to food safety, as with airline safety, mine safety, pick an industry: Regulations save lives.
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Nevertheless, Darrell Issa, reported Politico, sent letters to 150 trade associations, companies and think tanks, seeking advice on which regulations to investigate. An excerpt of the letter, posted by NBC News, read: "I ask for your assistance in identifying existing and proposed regulations that have negatively impacted job growth in your members' industry. Additionally, suggestions on reforming identified regulations and the rulemaking process would be appreciated."
The Issa approach is similar to that of the new chair of the House Financial Services Committee, Spencer Bachus, R-Ala., who told The Birmingham (Ala.) News, "In Washington, the view is that the banks are to be regulated, and my view is that Washington and the regulators are there to serve the banks."
It should be clear now why the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and its member corporations poured so much money into the election. A new survey done by the Union of Concerned Scientists shows a large number of government scientists and inspectors believe corporate interests are undermining food safety in the United States.
Darrell Issa is the wealthiest member of the House, with a net worth of at least $160 million. He earned it from the Viper car alarm system-you know, the one that blares (in his own voice), "Step away from the car."
Chairman Issa, protect the American people-step away from the corporations.
Denis Moynihan contributed research to this column.