By a vote of 73 to 25 on Tuesday, the Senate passed the Food Safety Modernization Act, which aims to overhaul the nation’s food safety system, the New York Times reported.
The law, which gives increased powers to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), comes after instances of tainted foods, including peanut butter and spinach, sickened thousands of people in the last few years, leading major food makers and consumer advocates to demand stronger government oversight.
The bill intends to keep unsafe foods from reaching markets and restaurants, as opposed to current practice, which is to wait until after outbreaks occur to take action. In addition, it increases the number of inspections of food processing plants that the FDA conducts, with an emphasis on foods considered most high risk. The bill also gives the agency more control over food imports, including more inspections of foreign processing plants and the ability to set standards for how fruits and vegetables are grown abroad.
“With the Senate’s passage of the Food Safety Modernization Act, we are one step closer to having critically important new tools to protect our nation’s food supply and keep consumers safe,” said President Obama. He urged the House to act quickly.
Even with strong bipartisan support on Capitol Hill the bill still faces obstacles. The House passed its own version of the bill last year and there might not be enough time for the usual negotiations between the Senate and the House.
Both versions of the bill would grant the FDA new powers to recall tainted foods, increase inspections, demand accountability from food companies and oversee farming. Neither version consolidates overlapping functions at the Department of Agriculture and nearly a dozen other federal agencies that oversee various aspects of food safety, the New York Times reported. The House version includes more money for inspections and fewer exceptions from the rules.
Meanwhile, advocates for small farms and organic food producers fear the law will destroy their industry due to all the paperwork. The concern lead Senator Jon Tester, Democrat of Montana, to make a recent addition to the bill that exempts producers with less than $500,000 in annual sales who sell most of their food locally. But the United Fresh Produce Association, a trade group, argues small food operations have been the source of some food recalls in recent years.
Time will tell how the House responds.
“This is a historic moment,” Erik Olson, deputy director of the Pew Health Group, an advocacy organization told the New York Times. “For the first time in over 70 years, the Senate has approved an overhaul of FDA’s food safety law that will help ensure that the food we put on our kitchen tables will be safer.”