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Senate clears bill to tighten food safety. Will House go along?

Food Safety Modernization Act passed the Senate Tuesday on a bipartisan vote. The legislation, which gives the US added powers to inspect and recall, moves to the House, where hurdles remain, especially over cost.

By Staff writer / November 30, 2010

Recently harvested acreage on a central Indiana farm, is shown in this photo. The US Senate on Tuesday passed the most sweeping food safety bill in 70 years, 73 to 25. The bill would require the FDA to regularly inspect farms and food processing facilities.

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The US Senate on Tuesday passed the most sweeping food safety bill in 70 years, 73 to 25, setting up what could be a tough fight in the House over the legislation's cost and reach.

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The food safety measure would beef up funding for the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) by $1.5 billion over five years, for the first time giving the regulatory agency authority to issue food recalls and new ways to inspect food processors who sell more than $500,000 in products a year. In the wake of several high-profile tainted-food cases, the law is intended to allow regulators to pounce on food-borne threats instead of reacting to them once they've hit the American population.

But the bill's price tag, its exclusion of smaller local processors, and critics' concerns about over-regulation by a new army of jack-booted inspectors ready to seize control of the American breadbasket could impede action in the House, where lawmakers are up against a tight deadline and a full agenda before the end of this Congress.

"It's just inches to the goal line, and the clock and the possibility that the bill could get mired [in the House] is the main threat now," says Sandra Eskin, director of The Pew Charitable Trust's Food Safety Campaign in Washington.

The House approved a food safety bill by a 2 to 1 margin in July 2009, and House leaders on Tuesday vowed to move the Senate bill to a vote instead of quibbling in conference over differences between the House and Senate versions of the law.

After recent recalls of tainted eggs, spinach, and peanut butter, 90 percent of Americans say the government needs more control over food safety, according to a Pew poll.

After the Senate vote, President Obama applauded the outcome. "This legislation ensures more frequent inspections of food manufacturing facilities and will require these facilities to take preventative actions to reduce the risks of outbreaks and foodborne illness," he said in a statement from the White House. "I urge the House – which has previously passed legislation demonstrating its strong commitment to making our food supply safer – to act quickly on this critical bill, and I applaud the work that was done to ensure its broad bipartisan passage in the Senate."

The Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta says the US food supply is one of the safest in the world. Even so, says the CDC, food-borne illnesses result in more than 300,000 hospitalizations and 5,000 deaths each year.

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