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Senate passes sweeping food safety bill

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.

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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