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Senate moves ahead on food safety bill that would give FDA new powers

By Lyndsey Layton
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 17, 2010; 7:33 PM

The Senate moved forward Wednesday on long-awaited legislation that would overhaul the nation's food safety system, grant new powers to the Food and Drug Administration and make farmers and processors responsible for preventing food-borne illness.

The legislation follows a spate of national outbreaks of food poisoning linked to items as varied as eggs, peanuts and spinach, in which thousands of people were sickened and more than a dozen died.

The Senate voted 74 to 25 to begin debate on the bill, suggesting the measure has strong bipartisan support and good prospects for passage. The House approved its version more than a year ago, and food safety advocates have been pushing the Senate to act so differences between the two measures can be reconciled and the legislation signed into law by President Obama by the end of the lame-duck session.

Debate on the bill is expected to begin Thursday and could last up to 30 hours.

Congress members, the Government Accountability Office, consumer groups and even the food industry have said the FDA lacks modern enforcement tools and adequate resources to keep the food supply safe. Food illnesses affect one in four Americans and kill 5,000 each year, according to government statistics, and tainted food has cost the industry billions of dollars in recalls, lost sales and legal expenses.

The bill would place greater responsibility on manufacturers and farmers to prevent contamination - a departure from the current system, which relies on government inspectors to catch tainted food after the fact.

Farmers and processors would have to develop a strategy to prevent contamination and then continually test their production methods and their products to make sure their food is safe.

The measure also would give the FDA authority to recall food it suspects is tainted; now, it must rely on food companies to voluntarily recall products. And it would give the FDA access to internal records at farms and food production facilities.

The bill would set safety standards for imported foods, requiring importers to verify that products grown and processed overseas meet safety standards. Public health experts say this is urgently needed, given the increase in imported foods and that the FDA has been inspecting only about 1 percent of imported food products.

The bill would also require the FDA to regularly inspect farms and food processing facilities, something it does not currently do. Between fiscal 2004 and 2008, the FDA inspected fewer than half of the 51,229 facilities it regulates, according to a recent report by the inspector general of the Department of Health and Human Services. The FDA has said it does not have enough resources to conduct regular inspections.

One of the bill's most vocal critics, Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), said the legislation, estimated to cost $1.4 billion over four years, will add to the budget deficit unless an equal amount can be saved through cuts elsewhere.

Although the bill has wide backing from groups representing consumers, public health advocates, major growers, food processors and retailers, it has revealed a deep rift between large farming corporations and the burgeoning local farming movement.

Boosters of sustainable agriculture and the local food movement want small farmers to be exempt from the regulations, which they say could force small operations out of business.

Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.), himself a farmer, negotiated language into the bill late Wednesday to exempt small farmers who have annual sales of less than $500,000 and sell the majority of their product directly to consumers, restaurants and retailers in their state or nearby.

"The risk that they pose is small," he said. "They have the ability to meet their consumers eyeball to eyeball. They're not raising a commodity; they're raising food. There's a pride of ownership."

If the FDA had reason to believe a small farmer was producing unsafe food, it could revoke the exemption for that farmer, according to the provision.

The darlings of the local food movement, authors Michael Pollan and Eric Schlosser, weighed in on the debate Tuesday and endorsed Tester's proposal, calling it "the right thing to do."

But food safety advocates and major growers have argued that all farmers should have to meet the same sanitary standards.

"Small and local food operations have been associated with a number of food safety incidents and recalls over the last decade and are not immune based on size of operation, distance of geography or commodity," said Robert Guenther, senior vice president at United Fresh Produce Association.The Senate measure differs slightly from the House bill. Under the House version, farms and food processors would be charged fees to defray the costs of oversight; in the Senate version, no fees are assessed. The House bill also calls for more frequent mandatory inspections of various food facilities.

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