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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.

Robert Guenther, senior vice president of public policy at United Fresh, said in a statement the exemptions amounted to "egregious loopholes" that will erode consumer confidence.

"Now, when going to a supermarket, restaurant, farmers market or roadside stand, consumers will be faced with the question of whether the fruits and vegetables offered for sale adhere to basic food safety standards or not," Guenther said.

The most vocal opponent of the food safety bill, Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK), argued it would create new layers of bureaucracy without making food safer. He said a better solution would be to ensure that FDA and other federal agencies do their jobs more effectively.

"The problem with food safety is the agencies don't do what they're supposed to be doing now," Coburn said. "They don't need more regulations. They need less."

Coburn also objected to the cost of the new regulations, estimated to total about $1.4 billion over four years. The Congressional Budget Office has said that will have a negligible effect on the federal deficit.

Food illnesses affect one in four Americans and kill 5,000 of them each year, according to government statistics. Tainted food has cost the industry billions of dollars in recalls, lost sales and legal expenses.

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

The measure also gives the FDA authority to recall food; now, it must rely on food companies to voluntarily pull products off the shelves. And it gives the FDA access to internal records at farms and food production facilities.

The bill sets 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. The FDA has been inspecting only about one 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.

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