WASHINGTON DC (November 30, 2010)—The Senate passed a sweeping overhaul of the nation’ssystem 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 Food Safety Modernization Act won bipartisan support in a 73-25 vote. The bill grants the FDA more authority to inspect and track products, including imported foods, as the food moves from farms to processors to supermarkets. It also gives the FDA the ability to order recalls instead of letting companies decide whether to issue them voluntarily.
Alcohol-infused whipped cream has hit the market, raising concerns over its targeted audience.
“This bill will have a dramatic impact on the way the FDA operates – providing it with more resources for inspection, mandatory recall authority, and the technology to trace an outbreak back to its source,” said Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., who sponsored the bill.
In a nod to small growers, however, the Senate bill exempts food producers who sell their goods directly to consumers within a few hundred miles of their farms.
Supporters say existing regulations, many of which trace back to the 1930s, are outdated and leave too many gaps in the inspection process. They say the new law is needed to ensure that producers adopt proper food-handling and record-keeping procedures.
In the egg-recall case, for example, inspectors later found dead chickens, live insects and mounds of manure in several farms where the eggs were produced. It also took regulators several months to track the eggs back to the source and order the recall because of incomplete recording keeping.
The food-safety bill, however, was not without opposition. Critics say the U.S. food supply is already quite safe and that the new bill represents bureaucratic overkill. Costly new regulations will raise the price of food or American families but do little to reduce risk, they argued.
Small farms and producers also complained about the cost of compliance, prompting Democratic Sen. Jon Tester of Montana to push an amendment exempting them from the most stringent requirements. On the opposite side were large companies and consumer-advocacy groups, who argued that every producer should follow the same rules.
Once the Senate works out differences with the House, which passed a similar bill last year, the proposed law will be sent to President Barack Obama for his signature. The White House supports the bill.
Even after the law takes effect, safety problems are certain to persist given the huge size of the U.S. food supply, an exploding number of producers and a divided regulatory apparatus. The FDA and Agriculture Department both have authority, and sometimes their jurisdictions overlap.