FDA would boost food inspections under Senate bill

By Mary Clare Jalonick

Associated Press

Published: Monday, Nov. 29 2010 6:30 p.m. MST

WASHINGTON — The Food and Drug Administration would have to step up inspections of food plants under legislation the Senate is expected to pass this week.

The bill, which has stalled in that chamber for more than a year, would give the FDA authority to order a recall of tainted products and would require food manufacturers and farms to follow stricter safety standards. At present, the agency must negotiate with sellers of tainted food to issue a voluntary recall.

Supporters say passage is critical in the wake of large-scale outbreaks of salmonella and E. coli in peanuts, eggs and produce. Those outbreaks have exposed a lack of resources and authority at the FDA as the embattled agency struggled to contain and trace the contaminated products. The agency rarely inspects many food facilities and farms, visiting some every decade or so and others not at all.

The bill would emphasize prevention so the agency could try to stop the outbreaks before they begin.

Despite wide bipartisan support, the legislation stalled as it came under fire from advocates of buying locally produced food and operators of small farms, who say it would could bankrupt some small businesses. Senators agreed before Congress left for Thanksgiving to exempt some of those operations from costly food safety plans required of larger companies.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., got an agreement to advance the legislation by allowing Republicans to offer amendments not relevant to the bill.

On Monday, the Senate rejected amendments offered by Sens. Mike Johanns, R-Neb., and Max Baucus, D-Mont., that would have repealed an arcane tax provision that helps pay for President Barack Obama's new health care law.

Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., was expected to offer an amendment Tuesday to place a moratorium on spending for "earmarks," or pet projects in lawmakers' states and districts, before a final vote on the food safety bill.

Whether the bill will pass during the brief lame-duck congressional session is unclear since the House approved a different version of the legislation in 2009. Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, the sponsor of the bill, said he has agreement from some members in the House to take up the Senate bill if it is passed.

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