Food Safety Modernization Act passed in US Senate in rare show of bipartisanship

A sweeping food safety bill passed in the U.S. senate today, marking the first significant changes to food safety in the States in nearly 75 years.

In a rare show of bipartisan accord, the senate voted 73 to 25 to pass a slightly watered-down version of a bill that was passed by the House last year. The Food Safety Modernization Act would significantly boost the powers of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and is designed to enable the organization to proactively address unsafe food issues before outbreaks occur.

In particular, the bill would give the FDA the power to:

  • Increase the frequency of inspections and target high-risk sites.
  • Recall tainted foods.
  • Boost oversight of individual farms.
  • Better trace food-borne illnesses to their source, and more.

Last year’s House-sponsored bill featured even more frequent inspections and an annual fee for food producers, but these requirements were removed or modified. However, the Senate added a provision that requires grocery stores to post complete and prominent lists of recalled food items and other food-related consumer alerts.

But proponents of food safety reform have indicated the new bill is better than nothing, as it will still affect nearly 80 per cent of food producers. It will cover fresh fruits, vegetables, dairy, processed foods (not containing meat) and, critically, eggs. The current focus on food safety is attributable in large part to last summer’s recall of nearly half-a-billion eggs suspected of salmonella contamination, a move that spelled significant costs for the industry.

While some criticism of the bill was raised by small, organic farmers who argued that they should not be subject to the same rigorous and costly oversight large industrial producers face, an addition to the bill exempts small farmers who sell food locally and net less than half-a-million dollars in annual sales.

The revised bill still has to make it through the House once again before it becomes law, but pundits are divided on whether lawmakers will hastily accept the Senate’s modified bill, in particular by the time the Republicans claim their recently won House and Senate majorities in early 2011.

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