Biggest overhaul of food safety passed in Senate

The Senate this morning approved the biggest overhaul to the nation's food safety laws since the 1930s, voting 73 to 25 to give vast new authorities to the FDA; place new responsibilities on farmers and food companies to prevent contamination; and--for the first time--set safety standards for imported foods, a growing part of the American diet, reports the Washington Post. The measure passed with support from both Democrats and Republicans, one of the few pieces of legislation to bridge differences in an otherwise sharply divided Congress.

Although the House approved a different, more stringent version of the bill in July 2009, House leaders indicated they would accept the Senate version of the bill in order to avoid the time-consuming conference process and speed the sending of the legislation to President Obama's desk. In fact, proponents hope to have the legislation signed into law by the end of the lame-duck session.

Some of the highlights of the bill include: Greater responsibility on manufacturers and farmers to prevent contamination - a departure from the current system, which relies on government inspectors to catch contamination after the fact; It gives the FDA authority to recall food; now, it must rely on food companies to voluntarily pull products off the shelves. And it gives the FDA access to internal records at farms and food production facilities; It sets standards for imported foods, requiring importers to verify that products grown and processed overseas meet safety standards. Public health experts say this is urgently needed, given the increase in imported foods. The FDA inspects only about 1 percent of imported food products; and FDA is required to regularly inspect farms and food processing facilities, something it does not currently do.

Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), the most vocal critic of the food safety bill, criticized it as unnecessary, and objected to the cost to the government (estimated at about $1.4 billion over four years) although the Congressional Budget Office said it will have a negligible impact on the federal deficit.