A landmark food safety bill that aims to modernize America's food inspection regimen appeared destined for the ash heap until the Senate rejuvenated it Sunday in one of the last acts of a busy lame-duck Congress.
The Senate approved the food bill Nov. 30, but a procedural mistake meant that its funding was tied to a now-scuttled omnibus spending bill. Without a funding mechanism in place by the time the new Congress takes its seat in January, the food safety law -- the first major upgrade in the US inspections process in 70 years – would be a nonstarter.
Food safety advocates say they knew ultimate passage of the Food Safety and Modernization Act could go down to the wire given grumblings that it amounts to an unnecessary expansion of federal powers to regulate what goes on the American kitchen table.
Critics of the law, which establishes a new federal inspection regimen for 50,000 food production facilities and which for the first time gives Washington authority to issue food recalls, say it pits corporate food manufacturers against small farmers and food companies that may fold under stricter regulation. That would leave consumers with fewer, and not necessarily safer, choices, they say.
Though the measure had bipartisan support, some conservative critics worry that the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) will get "trigger happy" with its recall powers, and use its authority in ways that will favor corporate farms and manufacturers. But amendments to the final bill exempted companies with less than $500,000 in revenue and companies that sell their goods only within 250 miles of the plant, easing much of the concern that mom-and-pop enterprises would bear the brunt of the law.
The US food supply is one of the safest in the world, but even so, food-borne contaminants contribute to some 300,000 serious illnesses every year, at a cost of $152 billion, says the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.
The bill, which the Congressional Budget Office says will cost $1.4 billion in its first four years, will make it easier for a beefed-up corps of regulators to identify weak links in the food-safety chain and to take more initiative to address problems such as this year's massive egg recall, which officials say sickened thousands and was linked to a facility with a long history of FDA violations.
The law affects 80 percent of the US food supply and focuses mostly on whole and processed foods except for meat, poultry, and some egg products, which are regulated by the US Department of Agriculture.
On Sunday, after several predictions of the bill's demise, Senate majority leader Harry Reid and minority leader Mitch McConnell reached a deal that the Senate, without debate, passed by unanimous consent Sunday night. President Obama is expected to sign the bill into law before Christmas.