Senate passes food-safety bill

SENATE PASSES FOOD-SAFETY BILL…. The House easily passed an important overhaul of the nation’s food safety safeguards over a year ago, before moving to the Senate, where it had six principal co-sponsors — three Democrats and three Republicans. It appeared to be a no-brainer, especially after the nation saw at least 1,300 salmonella-related illnesses spanning 22 states over the summer.

But the Senate is the Senate, and a handful of far-right Republicans blocked action on the bill for months. Today, their efforts came to an end — the good guys won one for a change.

The Senate on Tuesday passed a sweeping overhaul of the nation’s food-safety system, after recalls of tainted eggs, peanut butter and spinach sickened thousands and led major food makers to join consumer advocates in demanding stronger government oversight.

The legislation, which passed by a vote of 73 to 25, would greatly strengthen the Food and Drug Administration, an agency that in recent decades focused more on policing medical products than ensuring the safety of foods. The bill is intended to get the government to crack down on unsafe foods before they harm people rather than after outbreaks occur.

The legislation isn’t perfect, and doesn’t go as far as it should, but the bill does grant the FDA new powers to “recall tainted foods, increase inspections, demand accountability from food companies and oversee farming.”

Erik Olson, deputy director of the Pew Health Group, declared, “This is an historic moment. For the first time in over 70 years, the Senate has approved an overhaul of F.D.A.’s food safety law that will help ensure that the food we put on our kitchen tables will be safer.”

For those of us who eat food, that’s good news.

There is, however, one additional legislative problem: the House and Senate passed slightly different versions, and there’s no time for a conference committee in the lame-duck session. Look for the House, which passed the superior version, to just swallow hard and approve the Senate bill as-is, sending it to the White House for the president’s signature.

For all the Senate version’s flaws, it’s a big, overdue step in the right direction.

Part of the problem is the growing industrialization and globalization of the nation’s food supply. Nearly a fifth of the nation’s food supply and as much as three-quarters of its seafood are imported, but the F.D.A. inspects less than one pound in a million of such imported foods. The bill gives the F.D.A. more control over food imports, including increased inspection of foreign processing plants and the ability to set standards for how fruits and vegetables are grown abroad.

And as food suppliers grow in size, problems at one facility can sicken thousands all over the country. The Peanut Corporation of America’s contaminated paste was included in scores of cookies and snacks made by big and small companies. The legislation would raise standards at such plants by demanding that food companies write plans to manufacture foods safely and conduct routine tests to ensure that the plans are adequate.

The bill would give the F.D.A. the power to demand food recalls…. The legislation greatly increases the number of inspections the F.D.A. must conduct of food processing plants, with an emphasis on foods that are considered most high risk — although figuring out which ones are riskiest is an uncertain science.