Senate passes sweeping law on food safety

The Senate passed a sweeping overhaul of the nation's food safety system on Tuesday, after tainted eggs, peanut butter and spinach sickened thousands of people in the last few years and led major food makers to join consumer advocates in demanding stronger government oversight.

The legislation, which passed by a vote of 73 to 25, would greatly strengthen the Food and Drug Administration, an agency that in recent decades focused more on policing medical products than ensuring the safety of food. The bill is intended to keep unsafe foods from reaching markets and restaurants, where they can make people sick — a change from the current practice, which mainly involves cracking down after outbreaks occur.

Despite unusual bipartisan support on Capitol Hill and a strong push from the Obama administration, the bill could still die because there might not be enough time for the usual haggling between the Senate and the House, which passed its own version last year. Top House Democrats said Tuesday that they were considering simply passing the Senate version to speed approval but that no decision had been made.

"With the Senate's passage of the Food Safety Modernization Act, we are one step closer to having critically important new tools to protect our nation's food supply and keep consumers safe," said President Obama, who made improving the safety of the nation's food supply an early priority of his administration. He urged the House to act quickly.

Both versions of the bill would grant the F.D.A. new powers to recall tainted foods, increase inspections, demand accountability from food companies and oversee farming. But neither would consolidate overlapping functions at the Department of Agriculture and nearly a dozen other federal agencies that oversee various aspects of food safety, leaving coordination among the agencies a continuing challenge.

While food safety advocates and many industry groups prefer the House version because it includes more money for inspections and fewer exceptions from the rules it sets out, most said the Senate bill was far better than nothing.

"This is a historic moment," said Erik Olson, deputy director of the Pew Health Group, an advocacy organization. "For the first time in over 70 years, the Senate has approved an overhaul of F.D.A.'s food safety law that will help ensure that the food we put on our kitchen tables will be safer."

Among the Senate bill's last major sticking points was how it would affect small farmers and food producers. Some advocates for small farms and organic food producers said the legislation would destroy their industry under a mountain of paperwork. Senator Jon Tester, Democrat of Montana, pushed for a recent addition to the bill that exempts producers with less than $500,000 in annual sales who sell most of their food locally.

That provision led the United Fresh Produce Association, a trade group, to announce recently that it would oppose the legislation since small food operations have been the source of some food recalls in recent years.

But Randy Napier of Medina, Ohio, said the Senate bill was much needed. Mr. Napier's 80-year-old mother, Nellie Napier, died in January 2009 after the nursing home where she lived continued to give her contaminated peanut butter even after she got sick. "I am appalled at what I have found out since my mother's death about how poorly food is regulated and how these companies cut corners to save money," Mr. Napier said.

The legislation greatly increases the number of inspections of food processing plants that the F.D.A. must conduct, with an emphasis on foods that are considered most high risk — although figuring out which those are is an uncertain science. Until recently, peanut butter would not have made the list.

Staunch opposition to the bill by Senator Tom Coburn, Republican of Oklahoma, forced months of delay and eventually required the Senate majority leader, Harry Reid of Nevada, to call a series of time-consuming procedural votes to end debate. Mr. Coburn offered his own version of the legislation. It eliminated many of the bill's requirements because he said that more government rules would be deleterious and that the free market was working. That version was rejected.

Despite Mr. Coburn's opposition, the bill is one of the few major pieces of bipartisan legislation to emerge from this Congress. Some Republican and Democratic Senate staff members — who in previous terms would have seen one another routinely — met for the first time during the food bill negotiations. The group bonded over snacks: Starburst candies from a staff member of Senator Michael B. Enzi, Republican of Wyoming, and jelly beans from a staff member of Senator Richard J. Durbin, Democrat of Illinois.

"This legislation means that parents who tell their kids to eat their spinach can be assured that it won't make them sick," said Senator Tom Harkin, Democrat of Iowa, who, as chairman of the Senate health committee, shepherded the legislation through months of negotiations.

Health advocates are hoping the legislation will rekindle the progress — now stalled — that the nation once enjoyed in reducing the tens of millions of food-contamination illnesses and thousands of deaths estimated to occur each year. In the case of toxic salmonella, infections may be creeping up, according to government figures.

Part of the problem is the growing industrialization and globalization of the nation's food supply. Nearly one-fifth of it, including as much as three-quarters of its seafood, is imported, but the Food and Drug Administration inspects less than one pound in a million of imported foods. The bill gives the agency more control over food imports, including increased inspection of foreign processing plants and the ability to set standards for how fruits and vegetables are grown abroad.

As food suppliers grow in size, problems at one facility can sicken thousands of people all over the country: The Peanut Corporation of America's contaminated paste, which was recalled in 2009, was in scores of brands of cookies and snacks made by big and small companies. The new legislation would raise standards at such plants by demanding that food companies write plans to manufacture foods safely and conduct routine tests to ensure that those plans are adequate.

The bill would give the F.D.A. the power to demand immediate food recalls. For years, the George W. Bush administration opposed such powers, saying that food manufacturers invariably complied when asked by the government to undertake a recall. But last year, the agency asked a distributor of pistachios to recall its entire 2008 crop after tests showed salmonella contamination at its processing plant. Days passed before the company complied.

Consumer advocates were jubilant over the Senate's action.

"Everyone who eats will benefit," said Caroline Smith DeWaal, food safety director for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, an advocacy group.

(Published by NY Times - November 30, 2010)

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