Food-safety bill clears key Senate hurdle

After a year of waiting in line, legislation to promote food safety on Wednesday moved toward passage during the Senate’s lame-duck session.

Almost a year to the day after a unanimous committee vote, the long-stalled food-safety bill by Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) passed on a 74-25 procedural vote.

The Senate’s Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee passed the legislation on Nov. 18, 2009, in a 16-0 bipartisan vote. The measure was forced onto the back burner while the upper chamber grappled with healthcare and financial regulation reforms. 

The House passed its version of the bill in July 2009 by a vote of 283-142.

The bill would require more frequent inspections at food-processing plants and would give the government more authority in food-recall cases. The measure is being pushed by Durbin, HELP Committee Chairman Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), and organizations such as The Pew Charitable Trusts.

“Senators often talk about the importance of addressing so-called ‘kitchen table issues’ — the practical, everyday concerns of working Americans. Well, food safety is literally a ‘kitchen table’ issue, Harkin said in a floor speech just before the vote. “And it couldn’t be more urgent or absurdly overdue. It is shocking to think that the last comprehensive overhaul of America’s food-safety system was in 1938 — more than seven decades ago.”

Sandra Eskin, director of Pew’s food-safety campaign, had been promoting the bill for more than a year.

“I’ve always been taught that patience is a virtue. We’re thrilled and we’re hopeful that we’ll get the bill to the floor soon,” Eskin said after the vote.

Democratic leaders mindful of bipartisan support were cautiously optimistic about Wednesday’s vote. One senior Democratic aide said leaders are hopeful a final vote can happen later Wednesday or on Thursday, or else a weekend session is possible.

“It all depends on the Republicans and what they’ll agree to,” the aide said.

The bill has 20 co-sponsors, of which eight are Republicans, including Senate Republican Conference Chairman Lamar Alexander (Tenn.). Other Republicans such as Sen. Tom Coburn (Okla.), however, are opposed. 

Coburn told The Hill that the food-safety bill "doesn't fix the real problems," but rather compounds them by adding more responsibilities to the Food and Drug Administration or Department of Agriculture, which he said have erred too often in the past when responding to outbreaks.

"Fixing the real problems is about making the bureaucracy work right, not adding more layers and rules and bureaucracy," Coburn said. "I want us to have food safety, but for every dollar additionally spent, how much can you really improve? We have the safest food in the world, but you can't get to 100 percent. So at what point do you stop spending additional dollars? It's like homeland security. Can we ever spend enough money to be absolutely sure nothing happens? No, we can't."

The Senate bill is considered less controversial than the House version. Some of the more contentious issues, such as imposing fees on food facilities to help finance the Food and Drug Administration'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 problems in the food supply;

• Grant HHS greater authority to order recalls of suspected tainted food;

• Improve inspections of foreign food imported into the United States.

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