The United States Senate today approved a historic food safety bill, responding to repeated oubreaks of food-borne illness and addressing perennial assessments from groups like the Institute of Medicine and the Government Accountability Office, which have called the US food safety system weak and fractured.
The bill, the Food Safety Modernization Act, was passed by the Senate on an 73-25 vote this morning.
“I asked Senator [Richard] Durbin (Democrat, Illinois) when he started working on this bill and he said back in the House 18 years ago,” Senator Tom Harkin (Democrat, Iowa) said in a speech on the Senate floor lauding its passage. “This is the first time in 70 years that we have actually had a major revision of our food safety laws.”
The bill gives the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which oversees the safety of roughly 80% of US food, new powers to order food recalls, new access to records of food processing plants, and a new requirement to more frequently inspect food plants. It also compels the FDA to identify the most significant food-borne contaminants at least every two years, and, where they are called for, to issue science-based documents guiding the industry on how to fight these specific agents.
The agency, whose own science board several years ago sounded a pronounced alarm about its deteriorating scientific capacity, will be required to improve the way it collects, analyzes and reports data on food-borne illnesses, and to hone methods to rapidly and effectively track and trace fruits and vegetables. And each manufacturer will for the first time have to put in place a written plan describing their preventive controls to significantly minimize or prevent contamination hazards at their facility. The legislation also tightens requirements on food importers.
A companion bill was passed by the House of Representatives in July 2009, on the heels of an outbreak of illnesses from salmonella-tainted peanuts that caused President Barack Obama to worry aloud about the safety of his daughters’ peanut butter sandwiches. More recently, half a billion eggs produced at two Iowa farms were recalled this summer after salmonella sickened more than 1,800 people . That put the issue squarely back in the limelight on Capitol Hill.
Because the House and Senate bills are similar in overall thrust, but not identical in detail, proponents are hoping that the House will now pass the Senate’s version of the legislation, enabling it then to be sent to Obama for signing into law.
The FDA oversees the safety of most US food, including fresh fruits, vegetables, peanuts and eggs. Meat and poultry are regulated by the US Department of Agriculture.