Lame-Duck Senate Approves Food-Safety Legislation

The Senate recently passed landmark legislation to make food safer and prevent deadly outbreaks of E. coli and salmonella.   The law – if the House of Representatives also gives its blessing – gives the federal government broad powers to step up inspections of food processing facilities and compel firms to recall bad food.  The $1.4 billion legislation – which will impose stricter standards on imported foods – sailed through the Senate on a bipartisan 73 – 25 vote.  Outbreaks of food-related diseases have strained the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) resources in its efforts to trace the contaminated products and take them off the market.

The legislation emphasizes prevention so the FDA can halt outbreaks before they start.  Farmers and food processors will be required to tell the FDA how they are working to keep food safe throughout every stage of production.  President Barack Obama hailed the bill’s passage, noting that “We are one step closer to having critically important new tools to protect our nation’s food supply and keep consumers safe.”  Despite broad support, the bill had stalled in the Senate because some feared it would harm small-scale farmers.  Senator Jon Tester (R-MT) added an amendment that will exempt some of those operations from expensive food safety plans required by bigger producers.

Although the House of Representatives approved the legislation in July of 2009, that bill does not include the same exemption.  With little time left in the current lame-duck session of Congress, the question is whether the Senate and House can reconcile the two versions of the bill.  Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA), a sponsor of the legislation, said there is support in the House to pass the Senate version of the bill.  If Senator Harkin is correct, the bill could be on its way to the White House for President Obama’s signature before the 111th Congress goes into recess.

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