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Senate passes food safety legislation

WASHINGTON — The Senate on Tuesday approved the biggest overhaul to the nation's food safety laws since the 1930s.

The 73-25 vote gives vast new authority to the Food and Drug Administration, places new responsibilities on farmers and food companies to prevent contamination, and — for the first time — sets safety standards for imported foods, a growing part of the American diet.

The legislation follows a spate of national outbreaks of food poisoning involving products as varied as eggs, peanuts and spinach in which thousands of people were sickened and more than a dozen died.

The measure passed with support from Democrats and Republicans, one of the few pieces of legislation to bridge differences in an otherwise sharply divided body. Florida's two senators, Democrat Bill Nelson and Republican George LeMieux, voted for the bill.

"It's an unusual and shining example of how bipartisanship can work in Congress," said Erik Olson, director of the Pew Health Group food programs, which led a coalition of consumer groups that backed the bill. "It is a major step forward protecting the food that everyone eats every day."

The House approved a more stringent version of the bill more than a year ago. House leaders have indicated that they would accept the Senate version of the bill to avoid the time-consuming conference process and quickly send the legislation to President Barack Obama's desk. Proponents hope to have the legislation signed into law by the end of the lame-duck session.

For Jeff Almer, whose mother, Shirley, died in 2008 after eating peanut butter contaminated with salmonella, the Senate vote came as a salve to a family still in mourning.

"I think about her every day," said Almer, a Minnesota resident who has traveled to Washington six times to lobby for the passage of the bill. The legislation "is not perfect, but it's very satisfying to see something of this magnitude has made its way through."

Food illnesses affect one in four Americans and kill 5,000 of them each year, according to government statistics. Tainted food has cost the industry billions of dollars in recalls, lost sales and legal expenses.

The bill places greater responsibility on manufacturers and farmers to prevent contamination — a departure from the current system, which relies on government inspectors to catch contamination after the fact.

The measure also gives the FDA authority to recall food; now, it must rely on food companies to voluntarily pull products off the shelves. And it gives the FDA access to internal records at farms and food production facilities.

The bill sets standards for imported foods, requiring importers to verify that products grown and processed overseas meet safety standards. Public health experts say this is urgently needed, given the increase in imported foods. The FDA has been inspecting only about 1 percent of imported food products.

Highlights of bill

The Senate legislation would:

• Allow the Food and Drug Administration to order a recall of tainted foods. Currently the agency can only negotiate with businesses to order voluntary recalls.

• Require larger food processors and manufacturers to register with the FDA and create detailed food safety plans.

• Require the FDA to create new produce safety regulations for producers of the highest-risk fruits and vegetables.

• Establish stricter standards for the safety of imported food.

• Increase inspections of domestic and foreign food facilities.

Senate passes food safety legislation 11/30/10 [Last modified: Monday, November 7, 2011 1:25pm]

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