Senate approves food safety bill

The Senate on Tuesday morning passed a long-stalled food safety bill after more than a year of consideration.
 
Members voted 73-25 for the bill, which will usher in more frequent inspections at food-processing plants and would give the government more authority in food-recall cases, among other provisions. The vote was widely expected, given the legislation had passed a key procedural hurdle two weeks ago.

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The bill has bipartisan support in Congress and is backed by the Obama administration and the food industry. However, time restraints may keep it from becoming law.

The House passed its version of the bill in July 2009 and that bill is considered far more imposing on the food industry, such as implementing fees on food facilities to help finance the Food and Drug Administration's food-safety inspection efforts.

The two versions could be reconciled in conference talks, but time is running out. The lame-duck session has a full agenda, including the debate on extending the Bush-era tax cuts; the passage of a budget or a continuing resolution in order to keep the government funded; and a vote on the defense authorization bill, which includes a provision to repeal "Don't ask, don't tell."

Because of that, there is talk the House may approve the Senate version.
 
The food safety bill had passed the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee in November 2009, but had been stalled while the upper chamber considered healthcare and financial reform.
 
Before the final vote Tuesday, the Senate voted 36-62 to defeat a substitute proposal by Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) that had far less in the way of regulatory provisions. Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), the sponsor of the food safety bill, had complained that Coburn’s proposal would have “gutted” the more comprehensive bill.
 
Harkin cast the bill as the result of a long march toward compromise and a necessary step to update food-safety laws that had not been improved in more than 70 years. Eight of the bill’s 20 co-sponsors were Republicans.

“We have taken momentous steps toward strengthening food safety in America,” Harkin said after the final vote. “The Food Safety Modernization Act will help bring America’s food safety system into the 21st century.”
 
Coburn maintained his defiance to the end, asserting the bill has “fatal flaws” and that federal agencies such as the Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration are already overburdened and prone to mistakes.
 
“We can spend $1.4 billion in this bill, we can cause food prices to go up at least $300 [million] to $400 million, we can put unfunded mandates on the states — that’s what we’ll do if we reject this alternative,” Coburn said. “The problem with food safety is, the agencies don’t do what they’re supposed to be doing now. They don’t need more regulations. They need less.”

-- This story was updated at 1:01 p.m.