WASHINGTON — The House has passed a sweeping bill aimed at making food safer following recent contaminations in peanuts, eggs and produce, sending it to President Barack Obama for his signature.
The legislation passed Tuesday would give the government broad new powers to inspect processing plants, order recalls and impose stricter standards for imported foods. The $1.4 billion bill would also require larger farms and food manufacturers to prepare detailed food safety plans and tell the Food and Drug Administration how they are working to keep their food safe at different stages of production.
Praising the House, FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg said the bill will give her agency new tools to make substantial improvements in food safety.
"This law makes everyone responsible and accountable at each step in today's global food supply chain," Hamburg said.
The food safety bill has faced several false starts since the House first passed it in July 2009. It stalled in the Senate for more than a year as small farms objected to the increased oversight and conservatives complained about the cost. Most recently, the Senate passed the bill in November with tax provisions that were supposed to originate in the House under the Constitution, threatening completion of the bill.
House leaders tried to revive the bill by including it in year-end budget legislation, but that legislation later died when Senate Republicans objected to adding food safety and other unrelated measures to the giant spending bill. Democratic leader Harry Reid gave the legislation a last-minute, surprise reprieve Sunday by working with Republicans to pass a stand-alone food safety bill by voice vote, sending it to the House. The House passed it 215-144, sending it to Obama just under the wire as Congress prepares to adjourn for the year.
The bill would emphasize prevention so the agency could try to stop outbreaks before they begin. The recent outbreaks have exposed a lack of resources and authority at the FDA as the embattled agency struggled to trace and contain the contaminated products. The agency rarely inspects most food facilities and farms, visiting some every decade or so and others not at all.
"Really this is a major victory for every American who will sit down at the dinner table and have more confidence that their food is going to be safe," said Erik Olson, director of food and consumer product safety at the Pew Health Group.
The legislation has unprecedented backing from many major food companies, many of which realize that safe food is good for business. Recent outbreaks in spinach and other foods have hurt those industries financially as consumers hear about widespread recalls.
Still, the bill came under fire from advocates of buying locally produced food and operators of small farms, who said it could bankrupt some small businesses. Senators eventually agreed to an amendment by Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., to exempt some of those operations from costly food safety plans required of bigger companies, rankling food safety advocates and larger growers but gaining support from farm-state senators. Those exemptions are included in the final bill.
The legislation would:
—Allow the FDA to order a recall of tainted foods. Currently the agency can only negotiate with businesses to order voluntary recalls;
—Require the FDA to create new produce safety regulations for producers of the highest risk fruits and vegetables;
—Increase inspections of domestic and foreign food facilities, directing the most resources to those operations with the highest risk profiles. The riskiest domestic facilities would be inspected every three years;
—Require farms and processors to keep records to help the government trace recalled foods;
—Require grocery stores to proactively alert consumers about recalls.
The bill would not apply to meat, poultry or processed eggs, which are regulated by the Agriculture Department. Those foods have long been subject to much more rigorous inspections and oversight than FDA-regulated foods.
New estimates released by the federal Centers for Disease Control this month say that about 48 million people — or about one in six Americans — are sickened, 128,000 are hospitalized and 3,000 die each year from foodborne illnesses.