Long wait for food safety bill may be over

Almost a year to the day after a unanimous committee vote, a long-stalled bill to promote food safety is poised for Senate passage within a week.

The bill by Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) passed the Senate’s Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee on Nov. 18, 2009, with a 16-0 bipartisan vote. It had already passed the House in July 2009 on a 283-142 vote.

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But it was then forced onto the Senate’s back burner while the upper chamber grappled for most of this year with healthcare reform and financial regulation reform. Now, with the midterm elections in the past, Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) plans to bring it forward for a procedural vote on Wednesday that leaders expect will pass.

The bill would prompt more regular processing plant inspections and greater government authority in food-recall cases. It is being pushed by Durin, HELP Committee Chairman Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), and organizations such as The Pew Charitable Trusts.

“Obviously we’re disappointed that it hasn’t come up yet, but we have every confidence that it will pass this time,” said Sandra Eskin, director of Pew’s food safety campaign.

“What information we can cull from the Senate is that it’s been in the lineup, but healthcare came first. Then we were under the reliable information that it was going to come up during the second week in April, but financial regulation came up. Priorities are priorities. All we can do is push ours too.”

The bill has 20 co-sponsors, of which eight are Republicans including Senate Republican Conference Chairman Lamar Alexander (Tenn.). However, other Republicans are opposed. Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), for one, issued statements in September that blamed the bill for “new and unnecessary spending” and “burdensome regulations.”

On Friday, Coburn spokesman John Hart said the senator “hopes to reach an agreement on the food safety bill that would avoid the need for a weekend session. He believes the American people have sent a clear message that it’s time to pay for new bills instead of borrowing.”

Democratic leaders are cautiously optimistic Wednesday’s votes will be successful. HELP Committee spokeswoman Justine Sessions said the measure “enjoys strong, bipartisan support.”

“Given the great need for better protections for Americans against food-borne illness, Sen. Harkin believes this legislation must pass before the end of the Congress, and will continue to work with the bipartisan group of cosponsors to ensure this happens,” Sessions said.

The bill’s long wait in the Senate actually generated controversy earlier this year when Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.), author of the lower chamber’s food safety bill, criticized the Senate in an interview with The Hill. Dingell won re-election this month and is now the longest-serving member of Congress.


Dingell has hailed the bill as “a monumental piece of bipartisan legislation that will grant FDA the authorities and resources needed to effectively oversee an increasingly global food marketplace.” It is also critical, Dingell said, given the outbreaks of melamine, E. coli and salmonella in recent years.

The Senate bill is considered less controversial than the House. Some of the more contentious issues, such as imposing fees on food facilities to help finance the FDA's food safety inspection efforts, were not included in the version that passed through the HELP committee.

Among other provisions, the legislation would do the following:

• Attempt to prevent food-borne illnesses from reaching the population by requiring food-processing plants to upgrade the frequency and thoroughness of their safety inspections;
• Require the Health and Human Services (HHS) Department and Agriculture Department to jointly develop a national plan to improve food safety, as well as an HHS requirement for a national system to better prevent possible problems in the food supply;
• Grant HHS greater authority to order recalls of suspected tainted food;
• Improve inspections of foreign food imported into the U.S.

House Republicans were split on the bill, with 54 supporting it and 122 opposed. But even some staunch conservatives backed it, including Tea Party favorite Michele Bachmann (Minn.).