Friday, July 31, 2009

House advances food safety

Well, that was fast. After defeating a food-safety bill earlier this week, the House passed HR 2794 yesterday:

By Brian Faler,

The U.S. House approved the biggest overhaul of food-safety laws in decades in the wake of outbreaks of food-borne illnesses that sickened, killed and left industries fighting to woo back wary consumers.

The chamber voted 283 to 142 yesterday (July 30) to approve a $3.5 billion measure that would direct the Food and Drug Administration to write new regulations to safeguard the food supply, require more frequent inspections of processing plants and force companies to keep better records to help regulators trace outbreaks. The plan would be partly financed by a $500 annual fee on food producers.

“It will fundamentally change the way in which we ensure the safety of our food supply and protect American consumers, farmers and business,” said Representative John Dingell, a Michigan Democrat. “A series of food-borne disease outbreaks has laid bare unacceptable gaps in our food safety laws.”

Critics said the bill would impose too many rules along with a tax that would probably be passed on to consumers through higher food prices.

Leslie G. Sarasin, president of the Arlington, Virginia- based Food Marketing Institute, which represents companies such as Kroger Co., the largest U.S. supermarket chain, and Safeway Inc., the third-largest grocery chain, said his organization was pleased that the bill would give the Food and Drug Administration new powers, including mandatory recall authority.

“We urge the Senate to approve companion legislation quickly so the industry and government can take the actions required to enhance our nation’s food safety system,” Sarasin said in a written statement.

Twenty Democrats voted against the bill; 54 Republicans supported it. The measure now heads to the Senate where a food- safety bill introduced by Dick Durbin, an Illinois Democrat, is awaiting committee approval.

President Barack Obama, in a statement yesterday, called the House legislation a “major step forward in modernizing our food safety system and protecting Americans from food-borne illness.”

The push for the bill followed food recalls involving cookie dough, spinach and peppers, among other items. Earlier this year, an outbreak of salmonella-tainted peanuts killed at least eight people and sickened 600. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates there are 76 million cases of food-borne illnesses annually, 5,000 of which prove fatal.

The FDA oversees 80 percent of the nation’s food supply, with meat, eggs and poultry falling under the jurisdiction of the Department of Agriculture.

The FDA, which currently has the authority to recall a handful of products including infant formula, would get expanded power under the bill to have more tainted items yanked off store shelves. The agency also would be allowed to impose quarantines restricting the movement of food deemed a threat to public safety.

The bill would require 360,000 domestic and foreign food facilities to be inspected more frequently, with those deemed the riskiest examined at least once a year. Plants would have to register annually with the government so regulators know “who is doing what,” said Dingell. Produce and processed foods would have to bear labels identifying their countries of origin.

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