WASHINGTON – The Senate on Sunday passed a sweeping bill to make food safer, sending it to the House in the waning days of Congress.
It was the second time the Senate passed the bill, which would give the government broad new powers to increase inspections of food processing facilities and force companies to recall tainted food. The chamber passed the bill for the first time three weeks ago, but it was caught in a constitutional snag when senators mistakenly included tax provisions that are by law supposed to originate in the House.
The version of the legislation passed by the Senate on Sunday is amended to avoid another such mishap.
The bill would place stricter standards on imported foods and require larger producers to follow tougher rules for keeping food safe. The legislation has enjoyed bipartisan support, and supporters say passage is crucial in the wake of E. coli and salmonella outbreaks in peanuts, eggs and produce.
Recent domestic outbreaks of E. coli and salmonella have exposed a lack of resources and authority at the Food and Drug Administration 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 outbreaks before they begin. Farmers and food processors would have to tell the FDA how they are working to keep their food safe at different stages of production.
The House originally tried to rectify the Senate mistake by including the legislation in a year-end budget bill. Senators also included food safety in their version of the budget bill, but the spending legislation hit a roadblock when Republicans insisted it not include any add-ons.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., resurrected the bill — which many thought was dead as Congress rushes to wrap up for the year — by passing it and sending it to the House as a standalone measure Sunday. He said the bill is necessary because the food safety system has not been updated in almost a century.
Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, a lead sponsor of the bill, said: "Tonight, we achieved a critical victory, bringing this bill one step closer to the finish line. I look forward to standing with the president as he signs this important measure into law."
"It is a huge victory for consumers following a weekend cliffhanger as both consumer and industry supporters prepared for bad news," said Caroline Smith DeWaal, director of food safety at the Center for Science in the Public Interest.