The U.S. Senate passed a bill Tuesday to help make American food safer, potentially giving the government broad new powers to increase inspections of food processing facilities.
The legislation could also give the government more power to force companies to recall tainted food. The move comes on the heals of recent deadly e-coli and salmonella outbreaks.
The $1.4 billion bill, which would place stricter standards on imported foods, passed the Senate 73-25. Supporters say passage is critical after widespread outbreaks in peanuts, eggs, and produce.
Erik Olson, director of food and consumer product safety at the Pew Health Group, told The Associated Press that advocates are pleased with the Senate bill and realize there is not enough time to push for some of the stronger House provisions.
"We think the Senate bill is a major step forward for public health," he said.
President Obama also praised the Senate's passage of the food safety measure and urged the House to act quickly and do the same.
"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 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 riskiest domestic facilities would be inspected every three years.
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 food-borne illnesses each year.
Still, the costly new government regulations could threaten the very existence of the small family farm. Consequently, the bill contains an amendment exempting mom-and-pop operations that make less than $500,00 a year and sell their food directly to the consumer within 300 miles of the farm.
Scott Wilson is one of those family farmers. He said he's relieved he is off the hook for now, but wondered whether the government will regulate his small operation in the future.
"The thing that concerns us are the unanswered questions when we have new bureaucracy in place," he said.