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The New York Times reports this morning that the US Senate has passed by a vote of 73-25 the Food Safety Modernization Act, described as “a sweeping overhaul of the nation’s food safety system on Tuesday, after tainted eggs, peanut butter and spinach sickened thousands of people in the last few years and led major food makers to join consumer advocates in demanding stronger government oversight.”

The Act includes an amendment written by Sen. Jon Tester (D-Montana), which exempted food producers with less than $500,000 in annual sales or who sell the products within a 275-mile radius of where they are produced.

However, there remains at least a possibility that the Act could not become law. The Senate version of the bill has to be reconciled with a version passed by the House of Representatives last year, and there is relatively little time in which to do so before the current Congress adjourns for the final time. There are reports that some Democrats in the House want to simply pass the Senate version and get the Act quickly to President Obama’s desk for his signature, but nothing has happened on that front yet.

As the Times writes, “Both versions of the bill would grant the F.D.A. new powers to recall tainted foods, increase inspections, demand accountability from food companies and oversee farming. But neither would consolidate overlapping functions at the Department of Agriculture and nearly a dozen other federal agencies that oversee various aspects of food safety, leaving coordination among the agencies a continuing challenge.

“While food safety advocates and many industry groups prefer the House version because it includes more money for inspections and fewer exceptions from the rules it sets out, most said the Senate bill was far better than nothing ... Health advocates are hoping the legislation will rekindle the progress — now stalled — that the nation once enjoyed in reducing the tens of millions of food-contamination illnesses and thousands of deaths estimated to occur each year. In the case of toxic salmonella, infections may be creeping up, according to government figures.”

There was a chorus of approvals from various organizations.

“Today’s passage of S. 510, the Food Safety Modernization Act, represents more than two years of thoughtful, bipartisan efforts that included industry, consumer groups and all other stakeholders working toward a shared goal of improving our nation’s food safety system,” said Leslie Sarasin, president/CEO of the Food Marketing Institute (FMI). “With today’s Senate vote, we have taken another important step toward modernizing America’s food safety network and focusing on preventing problems before they occur, rather than just reacting to them.”

“The food and beverage industry is committed to partnering with Congress, the Administration and the FDA to strengthen and modernize our nation’s food safety system,” said Pamela G. Bailey, president/CEO of the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA). “We urge the House of Representatives to swiftly follow suit so that the President can sign this important legislation as soon as possible.”

“Senate passage of this critically needed legislation represents a major milestone for food safety reform and for greater consumer protection from food-borne illness," said Jean Halloran, Director of Food Policy Initiatives at Consumer Union. “We urge the House to act promptly to pass food safety through the Congress and on to the President.”

But, the reactions were not unanimous in their approval.

“We are disappointed that the Senate continues to ignore the egregious loopholes allowed in this legislation that will erode consumer confidence in our nation’s food safety system,” said Robert Guenther, United Fresh senior vice president of public policy, referring to the Tester amendment “Now, when going to a supermarket, restaurant, farmers market or roadside stand, consumers will be faced with the question of whether the fruits and vegetables offered for sale adhere to basic food safety standards or not.  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.  This provision creates a gaping hole in the ability of consumers to trust the safety of all foods in the commercial marketplace.”
KC's View:
I was impressed the other day by an op-ed piece in the New York Times written by Michael Pollan, author of “Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual,” and Eric Schlosser, author of “Fast Food Nation” and a producer of the documentary “Food Inc.” They concluded that while the “legislation is by no means perfect,” it “promises to achieve several important food safety objectives, greatly benefiting consumers without harming small farmers or local food producers.”

They went on: “You would think that such reasonable measures to protect the health and safety of the American people would have long since sailed through Congress. But after being passed by the House of Representatives more than a year ago with strong bipartisan support, the legislation has been stuck in the Senate. One sticking point was the fear among small farmers and producers that the new regulations would be too costly — and the counter-fear among consumer groups that allowing any exemptions for small-scale agriculture might threaten public health.

“Those legitimate concerns have been addressed in an amendment, added by Senator Jon Tester of Montana, that recently was endorsed by a coalition of sustainable agriculture and consumer groups. But now that common sense has prevailed, the bill is under fierce attack from critics — egged on by Glenn Beck and various Tea Partyers, including some in the local food movement — who are playing fast and loose with the facts.

“Senator Tom Coburn, Republican of Oklahoma, is the bill’s most influential opponent by far. On the floor of the Senate the week before last, he claimed that only 10 or 20 Americans a year die from a food-borne illness, that the government doesn’t need mandatory recall power because ‘not once in our history have we had to force anyone to do a recall,’ and that the annual cost of the new food safety requirements — about $300 million — is prohibitively expensive.

“Senator Coburn is wrong on every point. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, some 5,000 Americans annually die from a food-borne illness. Last year, at the height of a nationwide salmonella outbreak that sickened thousands, spread via tainted peanut butter, the Westco Fruit and Nuts company refused for weeks to recall potentially contaminated products, despite requests from the F.D.A.

“And as for spending that extra $300 million every year, a recent study by Georgetown University found that the annual cost of food-borne illness in the United States is about $152 billion. In Senator Coburn’s home state, it’s about $1.8 billion. Compared with those amounts, this bill is a real bargain.”