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Advocates run ads urging Senate to pass food safety bill

By Lyndsey Layton
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 11, 2010; A02

A year after House Democrats and Republicans overwhelmingly approved legislation to improve food safety, public health advocates are growing frustrated that the Senate has yet to take up the bill.

A coalition of food safety groups tried to turn up the pressure last week on Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), running newspaper ads in the lawmakers' two states featuring constituents who fell seriously ill from food poisoning. The ads urged Reid and McConnell to move the bill to the Senate floor and pass it.

"Time is short -- there are not a lot of legislative days on the calendar and we're seeing [food] recalls every week," said Erik Olson with the food and consumer product safety programs at Pew Health Group. "There is obviously a lot of interest in making sure folks know this bill has broad public support and that there is really no reason not to move this. It would show that Washington can get something done."

Pew Charitable Trusts released results of a poll conducted in Nevada, where Reid is facing a tough reelection campaign, finding that 71 percent of voters think the Senate should pass the bill.

On Wednesday, President Obama said in a statement that he supported passage of the Senate bill and that it would give the government the tools it needs to ensure food safety.

The bill, which would be the first major change to food safety laws in 70 years, is designed to give the Food and Drug Administration vast new regulatory authority over food production. It places greater responsibility on manufacturers and farmers to produce food free from contamination -- a departure from the country's reactive tradition, which has relied on government inspectors to catch tainted food after the fact.

The legislation follows a wave of food-borne illnesses over the past four years, involving products as varied as spinach and cookie dough, which has shaken consumer confidence and made the issue a priority for many lawmakers and the White House. Food illnesses affect one in four Americans and kill 5,000 each year, according to government statistics. Tainted food has cost the food industry billions of dollars in recalls, lost sales and legal expenses.

The measure also would give the FDA authority to order a recall if it suspects contamination -- authority it does not currently have. It would allow the FDA to quarantine a geographic area, blocking the distribution of suspect food to the rest of the country. And the agency would gain access to records at farms and food production facilities.

There has been little opposition to the legislation, with the exception of some farm interests, which argue that the legislation gives too much authority to the FDA and would lead to higher costs and burdensome paperwork.

But the bill's progress in the Senate slowed in April, when Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) announced she would offer an amendment that would ban bisphenol-A, a controversial chemical found in many plastics, from food and beverage containers. Feinstein's plan surprised many food safety advocates and drew strong and fast protest from the chemical industry and major business groups, such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which had previously supported food safety legislation.

Jim Manley, a spokesman for Reid, said the food safety bill remains a priority but that it cannot move forward until Feinstein and other lawmakers, including the bill's key Senate sponsor, Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), reach a compromise on the BPA language that will attract sufficient support to overcome opposition.

A Feinstein spokeswoman said the Democrat from California, where the state legislature just voted to ban BPA from food and drink containers for children age 3 and younger, is not backing away. "We're still pushing to get BPA in the bill," she said.

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