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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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.

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.

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.

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.

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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