We Must Improve the Safety of Our Nation’s Food Supply

I want to start by thanking Chairman Harkin, who worked with me to include provisions to help small farms and processors and organic farms so that they have before them in this bill provisions that support them and will help make them successful.  The last thing we want to see is an effort to make our food safety system work better be used as a tool to diminish the ability of small farms and organic farms to thrive, and that’s been effectively addressed in the bill, but also by provisions that I’ll speak to in awhile that Senator Tester is bringing forward.  

I’d also like to compliment Senator Durbin, who has been advocating for this bill, working on the elements of this bill for a very long time, and his determined, tenacious advocacy is the reason that this bill is on the floor before us at this moment.  I also appreciate the bipartisan problem-solving approach of the ranking member of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee Senator Enzi, and all the members of the committee for coming together to say: this is not a Republican problem or a Democratic problem – this is a national health care issue – a national nutrition issue, and let’s tackle it together. 

The safety of the nation’s food supply is a serious concern for every family, for every family in Oregon, for every family across this nation.  But I’d like to highlight one family in particular, Jake Hurly and his dad, Peter.  And I’m sure that they are very happy to see that we have this bill on the floor, and they will be particularly thrilled when we have it on the President’s desk, because the issue of tracing contaminated food is an issue that affected their family very directly.  This picture is a picture of Jake taken when his father Peter came with him to Washington, D.C. to testify before this Congress and share their story.  Jake’s favorite food was peanut butter crackers.  When he was three years old, he became very, very ill, and those crackers that he loved so much were the source of his illness.  But because we didn’t have an effective tracking system, there was no recall, there was no understanding that the crackers were contaminated and so in his illness, his family continued to share with him his favorite comfort food, those same peanut butter crackers that were already making him extremely ill.  Turns out, those crackers were contaminated with salmonella and the result was that a child’s snack ended up putting Jake’s life in danger. 

The Food and Drug Administration had already determined that peanut butter was a cause of sickening people across the country, but they hadn’t been able to trace the peanut butter and know that it had made its way into processed products, and in particular the product that Jake was consuming.  The Peanut Corporation of America, the peanut processing facility in Georgia, had contaminated peanut butter that went into thousands of products, sickening 714 people in 46 states, including Oregon, and killing nine.

The Hurley’s and countless other families have been waiting for Congress to pass this bill so that families don’t have to be worried that their children will become terribly sick because we can’t track contaminated food.  This bill requires the FDA to create rules for tracing processed food like the crackers that made Jake sick.  It took the FDA over a year to trace all the products that the peanut butter went into in that outbreak in 2009, and it’s not clear that they ever found all of the products. 

This is unacceptable.  Provisions in this bill will help prevent not only future outbreaks, but also future problems tracking down the contaminated products.  In my work in the HELP Committee, I secured a provision that in addition to tracing produce, which was already in the bill, set up a pilot project to calculate the best practices for tracing processed food, which is a more difficult undertaking.  But after this bill came out of committee, my colleague, Senator Sherrod Brown, worked hard to build on that, and he has strengthened the tracing provisions further in this bill, and I certainly want to thank him doing that. 

The bill now requires the FDA to create regulations ensuring quick and accurate tracing of all types of contaminated food.  Better tracing of contaminated food and better coordination between local, state and federal food safety officials can help prevent children like Jet Valenzuela from getting food poisoning.

I met Jet earlier this summer in Oregon.  This is a picture of him in the hospital two years ago when he unexpectedly became violently ill from contaminated food.  He had a deadly form of E. coli. He was hospitalized in Bend, Oregon.  He became so ill he was flown to Portland for more intensive care.  He underwent multiple surgeries, blood transfusions, and he was eventually put into a medically induced coma.  He came within a hair’s breadth of dying twice.  The scariest part of Jet’s story is that we were never able to find what made him sick despite best efforts, because we didn’t have the kind of produce and processed food procedures that could assist in tracking down the source. 

So for Jet and for Jake, it is urgent to pass this bill.  Not only does this help respond, but it helps prevent food outbreaks.  No family should have to go through what these families went through.  Most parents, including myself, spend a lot of time worrying about how to keep their kids safe.  But we shouldn’t have to worry about how to protect our children from the food on their plates.
Implementing food safety provisions have to be done in a way that supports our small farms, our family farms.  We cannot have a process that hinders them from operating successfully or puts unnecessary restrictions in their path.  And I want to thank Chairman Harkin for including the language in the bill that I suggested so that no new regulations would conflict with or duplicate the requirements of the National Organic Program.  This ensures there will not be any food safety regulations that would put organic certification in jeopardy.

 But I want to draw a lot of attention to the work that Senator Tester has done from Montana.  He has authorized provisions that provide reasonable exemptions for very small farms and processors, farms that sell their products directly to local consumers, farms that sell their products directly to local restaurants or to local grocery stores.  This comprises only about 1 percent of our national food production, but it’s a very important part of our local economies, very important foundation for our family farms, and so I am proud to support the work that Senator Tester has done in making sure that our small local farms are fully accounted for and supported in this legislation.

 Also in this bill are exemptions for farms that produce low-risk food, no matter what their size. This is the type of logical flexibility to make regulations apply when they’re needed and not provide unnecessary restrictions or hurdles when they’re not. 

In conclusion, I want to urge all my colleagues to support this bill. It will improve the tracing of contaminated food, whether that be produce, or whether that be processed.  It will increase inspections, it will create safety guidelines for farms and processors, it will protect organic farms, it will protect small farms.  This bill works to prevent contamination as well so we avoid unnecessary illness and death.  Improvements to tracing contaminated food will not only prevent illness, it will prevent costly recalls for farms and food processors who are not at fault for particular contamination.  And, most importantly, this bill will help other families avoid the nightmare that Jake and Jet went through and that their parents went through.  Our parents should be able to pack their children’s lunch boxes without fear.