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Tougher Food Safety Bill Passed In U.S. Senate

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Produce on display at a farmers’ market. (CBS)

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MONTEREY (KCBS/AP)- The Senate passed legislation Tuesday that would mean stepped up food inspections by the Food and Drug Administration.

The bill would give the FDA authority to order a recall of tainted products and requires food manufacturers and farms to follow stricter safety standards. Right now, the FDA has to negotiate with food producers to issue a voluntary recall.
KCBS’ Chris Filippi Reports:

Bill supporters said passage was critical in the wake of large-scale outbreaks of salmonella and E. coli. And the FDA has rarely inspected many facilities and some not at all.

“We look at it as a welcome addition to making sure that everything is on a level playing field for all of the country- that everyone is doing the same thing,” said Monterey County Farm Bureau Executive Director Norm Groot.

Despite wide bipartisan support, the legislation stalled for more than a year as it came under fire from advocates of buying locally produced food and operators of small farms. Those groups argued the bill would bankrupt some small businesses. The bill would now exempt some of those operations from costly requirements.

“We’re not sure why there is a distinction being made that small growers are not going to have to comply, when in fact it seems that the marketplace is going to really dictate the amount of food safety measures that they have to put in place,” said Groot.

Another version of the food safety bill was approved by the U.S. House last year.  Members of both parties voiced concern about the legislation’s impact on small farms and businesses when a different version of the bill passed that chamber in 2009.

President Barack Obama praised passage of the bill and urged the House to act quickly on the legislation.

“We are one step closer to having critically important new tools to protect our nation’s food supply and keep consumers safe,” he said.

The bill’s prospects are unclear since there is little time during the brief lame-duck congressional session for the House and Senate to reconcile different versions. Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin, the sponsor of the Senate legislation, said he has agreement from some members in the House to pass the Senate bill, which would send the legislation straight to President Obama’s desk.

Senators rejected several unrelated amendments to the bill, including an amendment to place a moratorium on earmarks, or pet projects in lawmakers’ states and districts, and one to repeal an arcane tax provision that helps pay for President Obama’s new health care law. Supporters said the amendments would have killed the bill’s chances in the House.

The Senate legislation would:

  • Allow the FDA to order a recall of tainted foods. Currently the agency can only negotiate with businesses to order voluntary recalls;
  • Require larger food processors and manufacturers to register with the Food and Drug Administration and create detailed food safety plans;
  • Require the FDA to create new produce safety regulations for producers of the highest-risk fruits and vegetables;
  • Establish stricter standards for the safety of imported food;
  • Increase inspections of domestic and foreign food facilities, directing the most resources to those operations with the highest risk profiles.

The bill would not apply to meat, poultry or processed eggs, which are regulated by the Agriculture Department. Those foods have long been subject to much more rigorous inspections and oversight than FDA-regulated foods.

The federal Centers for Disease Control has estimated that tens of millions of Americans are sickened and thousands die from foodborne illnesses each year.

(© 2010 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)

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