Worry over push to halt new food safety regulations

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by Diane Moca

MADISON--When tragedy strikes, like the E. coli outbreak that took the life of a child in Wisconsin in September, many expect government to react quickly, but some say a new proposal would tie regulators hands to prevent fhem from being able to react at all.

From arsenic in apple juice to E. coli in cantaloupe, this fall consumers are facing increasing concerns about dangers in our food supply.

"We're talking about the health and safety of our kids. I have a son who drinks apple juice, and I was appalled when I heard this," exclaimed Bruce Speight, State Director of Wisconsin Public Interest Research Group (WISPIRG).

He says the government will hopefully be able to react more quickly to contamination thanks to the Food Safety Modernization Act passed last year, which gives the FDA the power to force a recall for the first time ever.

"When there's food contamination, we want to be sure the government can react nimbly and protect the public," added Speight.

He says new regulations expected to result from the Food Safety Modernization Act will help prevent future outbreaks.

So why is Congress set to vote on a set of new proposals that he says would stifle any new regulations?

"I think it's an outrage Congress is even considering such bills right now," insisted Speight. He says it's all about the almighty dollar.

"This is all about prioritizing cost over safety," he added.

But Richard Williams, a former director in the FDA during the Bush presidency, disagrees.

Williams says food is safer now than ever before, but there is more publicity given to every little outbreak.

He says the threat of contamination being traced back to a specific company is enough incentive for businesses to keep dangers out of food, and the reason any new regulations should be closely studied to determine if the benefits outweigh the costs.

The Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation agrees.

Karen Gefvert, Director of Governmental Relations for the Wisconsin Farm Bureau, says her organization "supports this legislation" because it "simply asks federal agencies to provide sound science and consider the impact on jobs and the economy when seeking costly regulations."

"When we find there's contaminated food on the market, what is going to be the impact?" wondered Speight. "Are a million people going to get sick or are 10 people going to get sick? Often we don't know. Are we willing to risk a million people getting sick?"

But Williams says new regulations won't make food safer, and Gefvert adds: "Requiring transparency and justification of regulators benefits our entire society."

Some consumers say giving corporations the right to delay regulations and tie up new safeguards in court is not worth the risk.

"One catastrophe is too many," explained Speight. "People can die, get really sick, when it comes to food contamination safety issues."

Friday Congress is set to vote on one of three bills that would slow down the process of enacting new federal regulations.

If you've got an issue you'd like us to investigate, you can send us an e-mail to dmoca@cbs58.com.

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