Senate takes up long-stalled food safety bill

Nov 17, 2010 (CIDRAP News) – The US Senate voted today to clear the way for floor debate of a major bill to strengthen federal regulation of food safety, keeping alive a chance of passage before this Congress adjourns in December.

On a 74-25 vote, lawmakers approved a cloture motion on the bill, which eliminates the threat of a filibuster, according to multiple media reports today. All Democrats and more than a dozen Republicans supported the measure, the Chicago Tribune reported.

The bill, S 510, would empower the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to order food recalls, require it to inspect food facilities more often, and give it better access to food facility records. The legislation also would require food facilities to analyze their processes for food-contamination risks and take preventive steps.

A similar bill (HR 2749) was passed by the House of Representatives in July 2009 with bipartisan support. The Senate version received committee approval a year ago, but it has been delayed by other priorities and recently by concerns about its costs, particularly from Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla.

If the Senate approves the legislation, a House-Senate conference committee would have to try to iron out differences between the two bills. Time is limited, because this Congress will adjourn in December. When the new Congress convenes in January, sponsors would have to resubmit the legislation and the approval process would start over.

A key difference between the Senate and House versions involves fees. The House version authorizes the FDA to charge each food processing facility a $500 annual registration fee, which would help cover the costs of the agency's increased workload. The Senate version does not include an annual registration fee.

Both bills authorize the FDA to assess fees related to food recalls, but they differ on fees for safety violations and facility reinspections.

The two bills differ in various other details, according to bill summaries provided by the Library of Congress. For example, the Senate version exempts farms and restaurants from the requirement to supply safety-related records to the FDA; the House limits the requirement for farms but does not exempt restaurants.

Both pieces of legislation have language about enhancing the food safety capacity of state and local health agencies, but an official with the National Association of County and City Health Officials (NACCHO) said the Senate bill is stronger on that point.

"We really feel the Durbin [Senate] bill is very strong in recognizing the local, state, and federal role in food safety," Eli Briggs, a NACCHO senior government affairs specialist, told CIDRAP News. "The House bill does not recognize as much the complete public health system role from local to federal level. That's why we're pushing for the Senate bill."

Briggs said the Senate bill has a section that would help state and local health departments increase their capacity for food inspections and surveillance of foodborne disease outbreaks.

A controversial part of the Senate bill is an amendment proposed by Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., that would exempt small businesses from some of the new food safety requirements. According to a Food Safety News report today, the amendment has pitted small farmers and producers against large food industry groups such as the American Meat Institute and the United Fresh Produce Association.

The expectation of the Senate bill's supporters was that debate on it could take some time. "If we're successful [with the cloture vote], we expect to have the bill on the floor for the remainder of the week," Max Gleischman, press aide to Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., told CIDRAP News earlier in the week. Durbin is the bill's chief sponsor.

Gleischman said the Senate will be in recess next week and return after Thanksgiving. "The best guess is we'll be in session 2 weeks after Thanksgiving [before adjourning for the year]," he said.

See also:

Library of Congress's Thomas site, a searchable database on bills in Congress

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