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Senate approves overhaul of food safety laws

The measure would transform the FDA into a watchdog with the new power to order recalls. It must be reconciled with a House version before the president can sign it.

December 01, 2010|By Andrew Zajac, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Washington — The Senate's decisive approval of the first major overhaul of U.S. food safety laws in 70 years marked a major step forward in bipartisan efforts to give the government new tools for protecting consumers against tainted fruits, vegetables, eggs and other foods.

The measure now must be reconciled with a House version that was approved more than a year ago but differs on details.

Food safety experts, agricultural producers and political figures in both parties hailed the Senate action as a sign that final action might be near on the long-awaited effort to increase protection against contaminated food, including the increasing share that comes from abroad.

The legislation, which focused heavily on the Food and Drug Administration, was designed to transform an agency that primarily has responded to crises into a watchdog that will seek to head off problems by setting and policing stricter health and safety standards.

"It really is a paradigm shift for the FDA. It moves the agency from reacting to outbreaks and recalls to preventing them," said Chris Waldrop, director of the Food Policy Institute at the Consumer Federation of America.

Under the legislation approved Tuesday, food producers would be required to develop plans for reducing contamination at production facilities. The FDA would gain expanded access to company records, step up inspections and, for the first time, have the power to order food recalls instead of relying on voluntary action by companies.

The bill also includes certification standards for third-party food testing labs and requires importers to verify the safety of foreign suppliers and imported food.

President Obama hailed the Senate action, saying it put the country "one step closer to having critically important new tools to protect our nation's food supply and keep consumers safe."

Obama urged the House to act quickly so that a bill could reach his desk for signature before the lame-duck Congress goes home.

The Senate measure "will help protect the food served on dinner tables across the entire country. It addresses issues including food-borne illness outbreaks and product recalls. This bill helps make sure our imported food is safe," said Sen. Michael B. Enzi of Wyoming, the ranking Republican on the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.

The bill, sponsored by Richard Durbin (D-Ill.), found unusually broad support among consumer advocates, food safety experts and food growers, producers and distributors, some of whom had borne the brunt of multimillion-dollar product recalls.

"This is a universal issue," Durbin said. "There really is nothing from a geographic or partisan perspective to divide us on this. It really affects us all."

A consensus on the need to reform a regulatory framework that was little changed since passage of the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act of 1938 emerged after a string of illness outbreaks linked to peanuts, spinach, cookie dough, tomatoes, jalapeno peppers and other food in recent years.

Although the House passed its bill in July 2009, the Senate version was sidelined for long stretches by debates over the healthcare and financial regulatory overhauls and in recent weeks by opposition from Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), who argued that the legislation wouldn't improve food safety.

But when Coburn's opposition was overcome on a procedural vote, the bill won final Senate approval, 73 to 25.

Neither the House bill nor the Senate version addresses the 20% of the nation's food supply, mainly meat, regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Also, neither one addresses the coordination, or lack of it, between the USDA, the FDA and a handful of other agencies involved in food safety.

The lack of coordination was exposed in a salmonella outbreak this year that sickened more than 1,800 people and led to the recall of more than half a billion eggs — the largest egg recall in U.S. history.

Oversight of egg-laying operations is split between the USDA and FDA, and a congressional inquiry showed that the agencies did not share information about abysmal conditions at the egg producer at the heart of the recall.

By coincidence, that producer, Wright County Egg in Galt, Iowa, received FDA permission Tuesday to resume shipping eggs to the consumer market for the first time since August.

Tribune staff writer Lisa Mascaro contributed to this report.

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