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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.

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Concerns that Uncle Sam would send deputized agents to stop grandma from selling her apricot jam at the local farmers' market were largely allayed, when the Senate passed the so-called Tester amendment before Thanksgiving. That amendment exempts processors who make less than $500,000 a year, as well as operations that sell direct to retail outlets within their home states or a 275-mile radius.

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Yet opposition, including from some tea party groups concerned about raising the US deficit to boost oversight of a food supply that is essentially safe, has continued to bubble. The bill is opposed by the Produce Marketing Association, which represents big players in the food chain, as well as by groups including the Farm and Ranch Freedom Alliance, which sees government regulation as a threat to small farms.

“We still have concerns about the scope of the power that FDA has and its tendency to write rules and regulations that favor agribusiness instead of small farmers,” Judith McGeary of the Farm and Ranch Alliance told The New York Times.

A version of the bill sponsored by Sen. Tom Coburn (R) of Oklahoma that favored less, not more, regulation failed in the Senate. But critics insist that a bolstered FDA bureaucracy will make the food inspection regime more complex, which they worry could ultimately undermine food safety.

"Hats off to every one in the chain of command who [is regulating food safety] doing the job right, efficiently, and without bureaucratic malice," writes Michael Geer on the American Thinker website. "But arming that chain of command with vastly enlarged responsibilities riddled with powers of enforcement ambiguous at best is to ensure a law that harms rather than protects."

On the other hand, debate over the bill was collegial enough so that, around Thanksgiving, Senate negotiators "took a field trip to a nearby food market so that a Republican staff member could teach the Democrats how to buy high-quality steaks," reported The New York Times.

"I think it's something that everyone can really relate to, is your dinner plate, so it's shameful that it has to be a political issue in terms of food safety," says Jimmy Mengel, a writer for Green Chip Living. At the same time, he says, "it's great that we'll have some public hearing about it and each side can come to some agreement on food safety."

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