By Christopher Doering
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A Senate bill that would expand U.S. Food and Drug Administration oversight and give it the power to recall food is a step forward but it needs to be stronger, the head of the agency told lawmakers on Thursday.
Dr. Margaret Hamburg, the FDA commissioner, said the legislation does not include several crucial measures, including giving FDA better access to company food records during routine inspections, flexibility to target inspections at areas of greatest risk and enough money to do the job.
"The legislation is a major step in the right direction," Hamburg told the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.
The U.S. food supply has been battered by a series of high-profile outbreaks involving lettuce, peppers, peanuts and spinach since 2006. Consumer groups, lawmakers and the Obama administration have proposed ways to overhaul the antiquated food safety system and reform the FDA.
The Senate bill is similar to legislation that passed the House of Representatives in July, which gave FDA mandatory recall authority, increased the frequency of food inspections and required all facilities to have a food safety plan in place. The FDA now can only recommend food recalls in most cases.
Senator Tom Harkin, chairman of the committee, said he would push the bipartisan legislation "with hopes of getting the bill passed on down to the White House before the year's end."
Hamburg urged the Senate panel to adopt some of the same provisions as the House bill, including new fees for the higher inspection costs and greater FDA access to records at food production facilities. The Senate bill would allow FDA access to company records, but only in a food emergency.
Harkin said the FDA would need some "pretty hard figures" when it came time to talk funding if the bill is passed.
"I don't want to be in a position of having passed a bill that reports to do all these wonderful things and we don't provide the money and we give false hope to people that now they're food is going to be safe," he said.
Big U.S. food companies, worried that more food scares may turn away customers and erode confidence in the food supply and FDA, have pushed for stronger food safety legislation.
Scott Faber, a vice president at the Grocery Manufacturers Association, told reporters his group is not opposed to fees, but it has concerns about them being used to fund inspections.
"We recognize industry should play a role in rebuilding FDA capacity," said Faber.
The Obama administration has made food safety a top priority and President Barack Obama has appointed members of his cabinet to outline ways to assist FDA. Many of the proposals, also found in the House and Senate bills, require approval from Congress.
Obama also boosted funding in the fiscal 2010 budget that will allow FDA to increase food inspections by 2,000 a year, up form a current level of about 7,500 per year.
The FDA, which oversees the bulk of the U.S. food supply, has pressed Congress for more funding and authority. The last major overhaul of the country's food safety system was undertaken close to 50 years.
An estimated 76 million people in the United States get sick every year with foodborne illness and 5,000 die, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
(Editing by Mohammad Zargham)