Senate passes sweeping food safety bill

A rash of food recalls, from peanuts to eggs, led to several deaths and new calls for a comprehensive food-safety bill, but it has become stalled in Congress. The recalls have also led many food growers and processors to hire private inspectors to protect themselves from lawsuits, but experts say the inspections are rife with flaws and often do not make products safer.
By Lyndsey Layton
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 30, 2010; 12:57 PM

The Senate on Tuesday approved the biggest overhaul to the nation's food safety laws since the 1930s. The 73-to-25 vote gives vast new authorities to the Food and Drug Administration, places new responsibilities on farmers and food companies to prevent contamination, and -- for the first time - sets safety standards for imported foods, a growing part of the American diet.

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

The measure passed with support from Democrats and Republicans, one of the few pieces of legislation to bridge differences in an otherwise sharply divided body. The House approved a more stringent version of the bill more than a year ago.

"It's an unusual and shining example of how bipartisanship can work in Congress," said Erik Olson, director of the Pew Health Group food programs, which led a coalition of consumer groups that backed the bill. "It is a major step forward protecting the food that everyone eats every day."

House leaders have indicated that they would accept the Senate version of the bill to avoid the time-consuming conference process and quickly send the legislation to President Obama's desk. Proponents hope to have the legislation signed into law by the end of the lame-duck session.

For Jeff Almer, whose mother, Shirley, died in 2008 after eating peanut butter contaminated with Salmonella, the Senate vote came as a salve to a family still in mourning.

"I think about her every day," said Almer, a Minnesota resident who has traveled to Washington six times to lobby for the passage of the bill. The legislation "is not perfect, but it's very satisfying to see something of this magnitude has made its way through."

Despite strong bipartisan support and backing from a diverse coalition of major business and consumer groups, the bill was buffeted by politics in recent weeks.

It drew fire from some tea party activists, who see it as government overreach. On his television program this month, talk show host Glenn Beck suggested that the measure was a government ruse to raise the price of meat and convert more consumers to vegetarianism.

The bill has also revealed a divide between the burgeoning local-food movement and major agriculture businesses. Small farmers concerned about the cost of new federal regulation were initially opposed to the bill and argued that since most cases of national food-borne illness are caused by large companies, small producers should not be required to meet the same standards.

Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.), a farmer, added an amendment before Thanksgiving that would exempt small farmers and those who sell directly to consumers at farmers markets and farm stands.

But the Tester amendment has angered large agriculture groups, which argue that no one should be exempted from producing safe food. The Produce Marketing Association and the United Fresh Produce Association withdrew their support for the bill in light of the Tester amendment.

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