Several key legislators are committed to re-establishing funding in the 2007 budget for a 6-year-old program that speeds up the approval of new food-packaging applications.
``The priority is to get it restored,'' said a congressional source who wished to remain anonymous. ``There is interest'' on the part of Rep. Henry Bonilla, R-Texas - who heads the key agriculture appropriations subcommittee - in seeing the program continue, said the source. ``Absolutely.''
The $6 million funding for the Food Contact Notification program was eliminated by the Bush administration because of budgetary restraints and the addition of $50 million to prepare for a possible flu pandemic and to protect the nation's food supply from terrorist attacks.
Under FCN, food-packaging materials are approved within 120 days unless the Food & Drug Administration objects. If the program were eliminated, the agency would revert to pre-2000 approval procedures, which typically took two to five years.
Industry officials said FCN has helped bring more quickly to the market innovations that enhance food safety and point to the 140 FCN petitions now being filed annually, compared with roughly 30 petitions filed annually under the old program. More than 500 petitions have been approved since FCN began.
Packaging materials approved under FCN include plastics used in beverage containers; sealants for lids on metal food containers; absorptive materials used in tray pads for packaging meat, poultry and fish; packaging for fresh-cut fruits and vegetables; and materials on conveyor belts used in food-processing operations.
``We need to have our position championed within a month,'' said Ralph Simmons, with the Washington law firm Keller & Heckman LLP and lead counsel on the issue for Washington-based Society of the Plastics Industry Inc.
The House subcommittee timetable to approve the budget for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which includes funds for FDA, is early May. The industry has to ``show real-world examples'' to legislators of the positive benefits of FCN and what might occur if it was eliminated, said Christopher Brown, SPI director of federal government affairs.
Both Simmons and John R. Burke, president of the Food Service & Packaging Institute Inc. in Falls Church, Va., which represents producers of single-use food packaging, said grass-roots meetings with legislators are needed if the industry is to succeed in restoring the program's $6 million in funding.
``Packaging innovations are critical for the sanitation and safety of the meal,'' said Burke, pointing to plastic films in Europe, for example, that turn color if bacteria is present or if food is stored at incorrect temperatures.
``In laboratories, right now, there are researchers working on films that will react in the presence of bioagents. If national security [of our food supply] is important,'' the government needs to retain the FCN program rather than ``moving the clock back,'' he said.
>From a manufacturer's standpoint, approval delays also negatively affect the product life of an innovation and the potential return on investment, he said. ``Think of the half-lives of the technologies you are using,'' said Burke. ``Whatever materials developed for an application could be outdated by the time it is approved. How innovative can something still be if it takes two to five years to approve?''
``I understand that the FDA is being forced to choose between priorities such as Avian flu and to protect food supplies from bioterrorism,'' said Burke, ``but some of these packaging materials fit in with the idea of preventing the spread of infectious and contagious diseases.''
The effort to restore funding isn't confined to a single industry, giving Burke optimism that the FCN program can be salvaged.
``It's not just helping one or two little industries or companies,'' Burke said, referring to the 26-member Food Packaging Industry Coalition reconvened by SPI last month to lead the FCN effort. The coalition includes 11 different associations, such as FSPI, SPI, the Flexible Packaging Association, the American Forest & Paper Association and the Food Products Association, and companies like Dart Container Corp. of Mason, Mich.
Late last month, the coalition sent a letter to Bonilla and two other key committee members requesting that FCN funding be added to the FDA budget in the Agricultural Appropriations bill. ``It is important to restore ... funding,'' rather than reallocate funds ``elsewhere in the agency's budget,'' the letter said. ``If ... FDA were to return to the former inefficient system ... the flow of innovative food-contact substances would be slowed, regardless of their public health or environmental benefits.''
When FCN was developed, there was discussion of funding it through user fees, Simmons said, but ``it's not a route we're pursuing or would like to go.'' He added that it would require amending the act that created FCN.
``It would create an additional cost. We don't know what the fees would be, and it would discourage companies from using the process,'' he said.
User fees also would have ``a very large effect on small businesses,'' said Susan Howe, executive director of SPI's Food, Drug and Cosmetic Packaging Materials Committee.
Burke agreed. ``It's not a level playing field when there is a fee,'' he said. ``Small entrepreneurs with a great idea say, `Damned, I can't do that.' ''