Food Safety Overhaul Bill Under Threat In New GOP House, 'Food Police' Inspecting 'Girl Scout Cookies'

NEW YORK -- It's been over 20 months since Linda Rivera ate the cookie dough that almost killed her. The former high school teacher's aide and Las Vegas mother of six was rushed to the hospital in May 2009 after eating spoonfuls of Nestle dough contaminated with a deadly strain of the bacteria E. coli. Though she survived, she went into septic shock when her kidneys shut down, her colon and gallbladder had to be removed, and she fell into a coma. She remains hospitalized.

Rivera's husband calls her a "fighter," saying that she has made some physical progress and is now able to walk up or down 5 or 10 steps by holding onto the railing. "If you had asked me a year ago if this would have been possible, I probably would have said no," Richard Rivera told The Huffington Post. But his wife's struggle is far from over: She may need a liver transplant and her Cobra health insurance runs out next month, which worries her husband, since treatment to this point has cost over $5.5 million.

But Richard Rivera said he was in good spirits Tuesday, when President Barack Obama signed into law the biggest overhaul of the nation's food-safety system since the 1930s. Though it's not clear if the legislation would have prevented his wife from getting sick, Richard Rivera said he is encouraged by its expansion of inspection programs, creation of standards for food producers and mandatory recall authority for the Food and Drug Administration. In the wake of several foodborne illness outbreaks in 2010 -- including the recall of half a billion contaminated eggs, E.coli-tainted lettuce making people sick in 23 states and salmonella in peanut products killing nine people -- the long-stymied bill was passed at the end of the year.

"When you start looking at some of the numbers of Americans who are sick, tens of millions sickened by our food, if it saves one life, or one family what Linda and I have gone through, then it's worth it," Richard Rivera said.

But the bill, which attracted support from a broad coalition of consumer groups and industry heavyweights such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, could trigger a budget battle with the new Republican House. Food-safety advocates worry that the legislation's impact will be diluted if it's not fully funded.

Though it attracted popular support, the food-safety bill has become the latest target of Tea Party enthusiasts and critics of government overreach who fear that it represents the nanny state at its worst. Glenn Beck recently called the law "the Death Star", adding, "this is what Stalin did," and claiming that America has the safest food supply in the world.

"You're going to have 18,000 new food police going around inspecting everything from Girl Scout cookies to bake sales," Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.) told HuffPost. The fiscal conservative, who will chair the subcommittee that oversees the Food and Drug Administration's budget, said he is likely to scale back the bill's price tag -- $1.5 billion over five years -- though its costs are already to be offset by higher fees.

"By Pentagon standards, $1.4 billion isn't that much, but by FDA standards, it's a substantial increase," said Kingston, adding that he doubts that enough money can be raised in fees to cover the cost.

The bill's supporters feel that's a small price to pay for bolstering the safety of the food supply. "This is a paradigm shift, it's a huge improvement over what we have now," said Sandra Eskin, director of the Food Safety Campaign with the Pew Charitable Trusts. "What this does is make clear that regulated companies have the responsibility to develop food safety plans and the FDA has the authority to do something about it."

Advocates claim the bill will also save money by cutting down on foodborne illnesses, which cost $152 billion annually in health care and related expenses, Georgetown University's Produce Safety Project reports. An estimated 76 million people contract such illnesses in the U.S. each year, with 325,000 hospitalizations and 5,000 deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Kingston pointed out that the number of illnesses has fallen over the years, arguing that the current safety system works well. "If you look at a country of 300 million people eating three meals a day, 365 days a year and the food safety rate is 99.99%, something is going right," he said, adding that it's in the self-interest of food producers and restaurants to serve food that is safe. "The good folks at McDonald's don't want their customers to get sick and not come back."

The historic legislation has faced a long slog over the years, almost dying in 2010 due to complaints from small farmers and legislative ineptitude. Under pressure from lawmakers from rural states, especially Sen. John Tester (D-Mont.), an exemption was carved out for farmers who sell at farmers' markets or sell less than $500,000 a year.

Some food safety advocates and lawmakers worry that those exemptions are loopholes that undercut the impact of the legislation.

Two California Democrats, Reps. Dennis Cardoza and Jim Costa, who represent the farm region of the state, say that the Tester amendment makes no sense. "A small farm can devastate the industry as easily as a big farm," Cardoza told the McClatchy Papers.

And Marion Nestle, professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University, warns that the budget battle could doom the legislation, adding that many of the new rules could be cut down through the lobbying efforts by food producers.

In her "Food Matters" blog for the San Francisco Chronicle, Nestle wrote:

The bill's provisions require the Food and Drug Administration to hire more inspectors just at a time when Republican lawmakers have sworn to cut domestic spending. The FDA also must translate the bill's requirements and exemptions for small farmers into regulations.

Rule-making is a lengthy process subject to public comment and, therefore, political maneuvering. Watch the lobbying efforts ratchet up as food producers, large and small, attempt to head off safety rules they think they won't like.

Richard Rivera said he hopes that the legislation isn't watered down, and made an emotional appeal to lawmakers and lobbyists.

"I want people on the Hill to imagine their wife, their mom, their daughter in bed because of a food-borne illness," he said. "How would they react?"