WASHINGTON — Jeff Almer’s mother Shirley died just four days before Christmas, 2008, in a Brainerd nursing home. The Savage resident thought it was pneumonia or sepsis, the latter of which was listed as her cause of death.
The Minnesota Department of Health called a week later to find out what she’d been eating at her nursing home. At the time, people were getting sick from salmonella poisoning and the local media had picked up on the story of an unnamed woman from northern Minnesota who had died as a result of eating contaminated peanut products.
A few weeks later, Almer remembers the phone ringing, picking up and hearing a woman from the state health department say: “We’re sorry you have to hear it this way, but that’s your mother they’re talking about in the paper.”
Almer was furious — “You don’t know who to be mad at,” he said — but found an outlet for his anger in becoming the tragic object lesson of a food safety system he says is ineffectively reactive rather than proactive.
Legislation that aims to change that, in the form of a food safety overhaul bill, is before the Senate now.
“It’s kind of a two-fold issue for me,” said Almer, “and my goal is to get this legislation passed for my own safety, for everyone I care about’s safety and for everyone in the country who deserves to have their food system safe — and I think it’s going to help me cope a bit more with my mom’s death to have something good come out of it.”
However, after coming as close as it ever has to passage this week, the bill has now stalled until at least after the November elections.
The bill, and why it’s stalled
Several versions of food safety bills have been on the move in Congress. Some have been introduced session after session to no avail, some came after the peanut salmonella outbreak and even more came in the wake of the recent egg salmonella outbreak.
For example, a bill that stems from the peanut outbreak would make it a felony with a maximum of 10 years in prison to knowingly contaminate the nation’s food supply (an infraction that’s currently a three-year misdemeanor). That bill cleared the Senate Judiciary Committee Thursday.
“The first responsibility of government is to protect its citizens,” said Sen. Amy Klobuchar. “When companies or individuals make the conscious decision to allow unsafe and contaminated food to wind up on our dinner plates — knowing full well there is a chance that consumers might die from it — they should face stiff consequences.”
And while the food safety bills are numerous, the one at the forefront had been stalled for more than a year since it passed the House with advocates unsure it would even be brought to the Senate floor.
Among other reforms, the bill would require a method of tracking most foods, such that if a certain brand of peanut butter caused the next salmonella outbreak, the Department of Health and Human Services would be able to immediately notify everyone from the farmers who grow the peanuts to the peanut butter processing plants, distribution agencies and grocery stores that sell the finished product.
This present writing of the bill, somewhat different from the text the House passed originally, is the result of compromise by three Democrats and three Republicans. If it comes to an up-or-down vote, those on both sides say it would easily pass.
But it hasn’t come up for a vote, and Tom Coburn is the reason why. Well, that and a crowded schedule and the Senate’s desire to get out of Washington and campaign in advance of the November elections.
Coburn, a hard-line anti-deficit crusading Republican from Oklahoma, demanded the $1.5 billion bill be paid for as submitted to the Senate, rather than through an amendment that would have been offered later. He’s also locked in a fight with California Democrat Dianne Feinstein over banning a chemical from children’s food containers (the ban is in the bill, Coburn wants it out).
Ordinarily, a 99-1 vote would be easy enough to take, overruling Coburn and moving on to the final bill. But since he doesn’t have weeks left to go through procedural motions, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid needed unanimous consent to move forward. Hence, Coburn was able to block it by himself.
Reid, in a statement, blasted Coburn for stalling the bill: “In light of recent events like the egg recall in Iowa, it is unconscionable that Sen. Coburn and his Republican colleagues are putting politics ahead of a commonsense, bipartisan bill to ensure that food products our families consume every day are safe.”
Coburn, in a responding statement, defended himself and said the majority leader was at fault for not paying for the bill up front.
“Unfortunately, he [Reid] has refused to even discuss ways to pay for the bill by reducing spending on lower priority items,” Coburn said. “With our national debt at $13.5 trillion we simply can’t continue to borrow and spend without restraint.”
Reid pulled the bill and said it wouldn’t come up until after the November elections. And all the stalling has left Almer fuming.
“I pray that people like [Coburn] never watch their loved ones take their last dying breaths or suffer life-long sickness from contaminated food,” Almer said. “He seems to have all the answers and apparently is not willing to do anything to change the status quo.”
Coburn, he said, has offered an impossible request and Almer suspects he only did it to kill the bill. “Somehow, he’s forgotten the core: there are real people getting sick and dying now.”