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Senate expected to vote on food safety bill

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By Lyndsey Layton
Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The Senate is expected to vote Tuesday on legislation that would revamp food safety, give significant new authority to the Food and Drug Administration, and place new responsibilities on farmers and processors to keep food free from contamination. The Senate began debate on the measure Monday.

A version of the bill easily passed in the House more than a year ago but has languished in the Senate. Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) is pushing to get the bill passed before the lame-duck session ends in December.

House leaders have indicated that the House would accept the Senate version, avoiding the need to reconcile the bills.

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.

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

It has drawn fire from some tea party activists, who see it as government overreach. On his program this month, 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 The Produce Marketing Association and the United Fresh Produce Association have withdrawn their support for the bill in light of the Tester amendment.

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 contamination after the fact.

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

The bill would set 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 1 percent of imported food products.

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