The Senate voted overwhelmingly Tuesday for a wide-range overhaul of the nation's food safety system. The $1.4 billion food safety bill would give greater oversight to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to handle such crises as the recent recalls of tainted eggs, spinach and peanut butter.
Among the provisions of the bill, the agency would be allowed to order a mandatory recall of tainted foods and set safety standards for raw produce, such as fresh fruit and vegetables. The agency would also increase inspections of domestic and foreign food facilities.
An estimated 87 million Americans are sickened by contaminated food, and 5,700 die from food-related disease each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Currently, the FDA can only negotiate with businesses to order voluntary recalls. But now, the FDA would be allowed to suspend firms' selling contaminated food. The agency could provide a one-page summary of recall that grocery stores would be required to post visibly throughout their stores, including at cash registers and shelves where the product is sold.
The FDA would create produce safety regulations for producers of the highest-risk fruits and vegetables, including raw foods such as spinach, which has been a source of recalls since 2006.
The FDA currently oversees about 80 percent of the nation's food supply, including seafood, dairy products and canned foods. But the legislation does not mention provisions regarding meat and poultry, which are overseen by the U.S Department of Agriculture.
"After a hundred years of inaction, this is an important step forward. But we must take the next step to safeguard meat and poultry," said Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., who wrote part of the Senate bill.
A separate version of the food safety bill passed in the House in late 2009. And although the Senate version of the bill, named the Food Safety Modernization Act, received bipartisan support, many top Democrats fear the measure might not pass if given too much time. But House leaders indicated they would consider passing the Senate version of the bill, which would bypass the time needed to integrate the two bills.
However, many food industry companies said the House should take the time to review both bills before rushing to pass one during the lame duck session.
Among the companies' concerns in the Senate version is the Tester Amendment, which would exempt smaller food producers and those that distribute locally.
"Unfortunately, instead of adhering to a science- and risk-based approach that was consistently the foundation of the underlying bill, the Senate has chosen to include a provision that will exempt certain segments of the food industry based on the size of operation, geographic location and customer base," Robert Guenther, senior vice president of public policy at United Fresh, said in a written statement. "This principle is at risk of being discarded for temporary convenience to pass a bill, but it is a fundamental mistake that will come back to haunt consumers, the food industry and even those producers who think they are escaping from food safety requirements."
While the agency would be authorized oversight over larger food processors and manufacturers, the bill exempts smaller food facilities from FDA oversight, including food facilities or farms with sales of $500,000 or less, or producers that sell half of their food to retailers, restaurants or consumers in the same state or within 275 miles.
"The consequences of inadequate food safety precautions have no boundaries as to size of operation, geography, nor commodity," Nineteen food industry organizations said in a letter to House leaders in November 2010.
Still, the legislation's supporters expect the bill to reach the House in early December. If passed, it would go to President Obama, who has already expressed his approval of the Senate's vote.