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Senate to vote on food safety bill

November 16, 2010 |  3:48 pm

The food safety bill is back.


Yes. Congress gets a last bite at much-delayed though broadly supported food safety legislation in its lame-duck session this week.

The Senate Wednesday is slated to vote on cloture -- heading off a filibuster by setting a time limit on debate -- to allow for discussion of and, presumably, eventual passage of the bill.

Indications are that the bill's backers have either the 60 votes from the full Senate or support from three-fifths of those in attendance.

The legislation passed out of a Senate committee last November but has been held up for more than a year.

It should be noted that getting the bill passed was always going to be dicey, bipartisan backing notwithstanding. It significantly increases the regulatory clout of the Food and Drug Administration, something much of the food industry grudgingly supports only because a series of expensive and sometimes deadly food-borne illness outbreaks have repeatedly demonstrated the failure of the current food safety regime.

There's still a lot of uneasiness over, for example, how much of the emphasis of the bill will be on stepped up inspections of food facilities -- something producers are not wild about -- and how much will be on research to improve so-called traceback capabilities.

The food industry likes the latter part of the proposal, which would help authorities swiftly isolate the source of an outbreak from, say, spinach, and destroy a single field of greens instead of an entire crop.

The bill also would give the FDA authority to order recalls instead of relying on industry cooperation, and require food producers to write and follow safety plans and identify and eliminate possible sources of contamination.

Full Senate consideration of the bill initially was delayed by the healthcare overhaul and financial regulation bills.

Later, supporters held the bill back out of fear that an amendment by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) dealing with the controversial plastics additive bisphenol A, would knock key elements of the food industry from the coalition supporting the legislation.

More recently, Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) held up the bill because he said it didn't include a way of covering the estimated $1.4-billion cost of the reforms over five years.

The latest complication is a planned amendment by Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) to exempt small growers and processors on the grounds that the bill's requirements are overly burdensome. Tester's argument is "that food-borne illnesses don't come from family agriculture" but from corporate producers.

If the Senate does manage to pass the bill, it still needs to be reconciled with a House-passed version, which is more expensive and a bit more demanding of food producers.

 -- Andrew Zajac