Senate approves bill to require foodmakers to find ways to prevent contamination

By Lyndsey Layton
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 1, 2010; 12:12 AM

In what would be the biggest overhaul of the nation's food safety laws in seven decades, the Senate on Tuesday approved a raft of regulations that would require food manufacturers and farmers to use scientific techniques to prevent contaminated food - a shift aimed at stopping the waves of foodborne illnesses that have shaken consumer confidence in the safety of the food supply.

The vote of 73 to 25 cleared the way for the legislation to be signed into law in the coming weeks, delivering a revamped safety system that would confer vast new authority on the Food and Drug Administration, accelerate the government's response to outbreaks and set the first safety standards for imported food. The changes come after tainted foods as varied as spinach and peanuts recently sickened thousands nationwide and caused at least a dozen deaths.

"For too long, we've allowed trips to the grocery store to be a gamble for American families," said Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), a lead sponsor of the bill. The measure "will give our citizens some long-overdue peace of mind in the supermarket aisles."

The legislation drew support across party lines, making it one of the few recent measures to bridge differences in an otherwise sharply divided body.

Leaders in the House, which approved a more stringent version more than a year ago, have indicated that they will accept the Senate bill, bypassing the conference process and speeding the legislation to President Obama. The president, who has voiced concern in the past about the peanut butter sandwiches his younger daughter consumes, applauded the Senate vote and urged the House to move quickly.

Proponents of the measure said they are concerned that the new Congress will not authorize enough money for it but expressed relief that the Senate approved the bill before it adjourns.

"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 backing the bill. "It is a major step forward protecting the food that everyone eats every day."

For the average consumer, the new regulations would mean more information about recalled products - the legislation requires grocery stores to prominently display recall notices or use loyalty cards and coupons to notify consumers.

It is unclear whether the rules would lead to higher food prices. But most important, advocates say, they would result in greater consumer confidence and fewer cases of illness.

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

"I think about her every day," said Almer, a Minnesota resident who has traveled to Washington six times to lobby for the legislation. "It's very satisfying to see something of this magnitude has made its way through."

One in four Americans become ill from tainted food each year, and 5,000 die, according to government figures. And businesses spend billions of dollars as a result of lost sales, recalls and legal expenses triggered by the problem.

The legislation will affect all whole and processed foods except meat, poultry and some egg products, which are regulated under separate laws by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Unlike the current system, which relies on government inspectors catching contamination, the new measure would require manufacturers and farmers to come up with strategies to prevent contamination and then continually test to make sure they are working.

It also would give the FDA the 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 require importers to verify that products grown and processed overseas meet U.S. 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.

The measure also would require the FDA to regularly inspect farms and food-processing plants and to frequently visit "high risk" facilities. Currently, the agency inspects food-processing sites about once a decade and rarely visits farms.

The measure's most vocal opponent, Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), argued that it would create layers of bureaucracy without making food safer.

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

The bill is expected to cost $1.4 billion over the next four years, including the expense of hiring 17,800 new FDA inspectors.

The House version of the measure would require farms and companies to pay fees, which would help defray costs. But the Senate version does not include fees.

With the incoming Republican House majority intent on cutting the cost of government, an expanded FDA could be on a collision course with the new austerity.

Absent funding, the legislation is nothing more than a "paper tiger," said David Acheson, a former assistant commissioner for food protection at the FDA. "Enforcement needs resources, in terms of personnel. You need all those pieces. Otherwise, it's simply a piece of paper."

Despite 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 consider it government overreach.

Debate over the measure revealed a rift between the local-food movement and major agriculture businesses. Small farmers concerned about the cost of new regulation initially opposed the bill and argued that because 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.), who is a farmer, added an amendment approved by the Senate that would exempt small farmers and those who sell directly to consumers at markets and farm stands.

The amendment angered large agriculture groups, which say no one should be exempted from producing safe food. The Produce Marketing Association and the United Fresh Produce Association withdrew their support, and Robert Guenther, senior vice president of public policy at United Fresh, said the exemptions amount to "egregious loopholes."

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