A Hot Day on Capitol Hill

I have newfound respect for congressional lobbyists, having walked in their shoes for a day - an oppressively humid morning hiking across Capitol Hill amid a phalanx of power suits and monument-hopping tourists. A job I once viewed as both glamorous and unjustly powerful I now view as a somewhat anonymous endeavor, fighting for face time with the nation's leaders only to be granted five minutes in the hallway of the House of Representatives with a staffer who wasn't even old enough to vote during the last presidential election.

That's only a sliver of what the National Fisheries Institute's Future Leaders Class of 2008 faced this Tuesday during a visit to Washington, D.C., to witness firsthand NFI's approach to politicians in their natural habitat. It was an enlightening experience, even though the average aide, especially one who's available mid-summer, fits the aforementioned profile.

Undaunted by the prospect of not actually meeting any elected officials (I did see Sen. Orrin Hatch hurriedly catch an elevator), the Future Leaders split into regional groups and approached a dozen select Congressmen with a unified message: Support the Costa-Putnam bill (H.R. 5904), introduced in the House in late April, and you'll keep seafood safe and affordable for your constituents. After all, it's all about the voters.

If you're unfamiliar with Costa-Putnam, you're not alone. None of the staffers we encountered were up to speed on the legislation, but they were certainly interested in food-safety issues and listened to the pitch. Costa-Putnam, the group explained, would establish federal safety standards for all imported foods and streamline the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's efforts in safeguarding U.S. seafood imports without significantly adding costs for consumers.

Introduced by Reps. Jim Costa (D-Calif.) and Adam Putnam (R-Fla.), the bill is also known as the Safe FEAST (Food Enforcement, Assessment, Standards and Targeting) Act. In short, Safe FEAST is a risk-based, preventative approach that would reward superior safety practices. By allowing overseas suppliers with a proven history of providing safe products to face limited interference at ports of entry, and by enlisting foreign labs to conduct inspections, the FDA could assign its limited resources to monitor products and companies with question marks.

Secretary of Health and Human Services Michael Leavitt last year said, "We can't inspect our way to safety" shortly after the Associated Press reported that only 1.3 percent of food imports are actually inspected. Imports represent more than 80 percent of the U.S. seafood supply. And with a cash-strapped FDA waiting at ports of entry, the agency needs a more efficient food-safety system.

Is the solution Safe FEAST? It could be, although bills have a habit of being tweaked beyond recognition once inside the political machine. But considering Congress is about to adjourn for the month of August, and a pivotal election is scheduled for November, we were told by a political insider not to expect the bill to zip freely through the marble halls where Jefferson and Lincoln shaped the nation.


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