Senate passes food safety bill

By Lyndsey Layton
Wednesday, December 1, 2010

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. Businesses spend billions of dollars as a result of lost sales, recalls and legal expenses triggered by the problem.

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