Bill increases FDA's clout

WASHINGTON -- The Senate passed legislation Tuesday to make food safer in the wake of E. coli and salmonella outbreaks, potentially giving the government broad new powers to increase inspections of food processing facilities and force companies to recall tainted food.

The $1.4 billion bill, which also would place stricter standards on imported foods, passed the Senate 73-25. Supporters say passage is critical after widespread outbreaks in peanuts, eggs and produce.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid voted for the food safety bill. Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., voted against it.

The outbreaks have exposed a lack of resources and authority at the Food and Drug Administration, which is struggling to contain and trace 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 Food and Drug Administration how they are working to keep their food safe at different stages of production.

Reid said the bill would give the Food and Drug Administration more resources "to keep up with advances in food production and marketing, while keeping the regulatory burdens on farmers and food producers to a minimum."

Ensign voted for a Republican alternative that failed 36-62. Sponsored by Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., it would have required the Food and Drug Administration to share data with the Agriculture Department, approve new food safety technologies and accredit third party food inspectors.

Coburn said the alternative would avoid $1.4 billion in costs and new regulations on the food industry in the version that ultimately was passed.

Ensign's spokeswoman said he voted for "a more responsible alternative to the Food Safety bill that would have required better coordination among agencies and would have saved the taxpayers from the burden of another $1.4 billion added onto our national debt."

Despite bipartisan support and backing from many food companies, the legislation had stalled in the Senate as it came under fire from advocates of buying locally produced food and operators of small farms, who said it would could bankrupt some small businesses. Senators 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.

No such exemption exists in the House version, which passed in July 2009. The House bill, favored by food safety advocates, includes more money for FDA inspectors and would charge fees to companies to help pay for the increased regulation. It also would include stricter penalties for food manufacturers who violate the law.

Senate sponsors tweaked the bill, eliminating the fees and reducing the amount of money spent on inspectors, for example, to make the bill more palatable in the House, where many members voiced concern about the legislation's impact on small farms and businesses .

Erik Olson, director of food and consumer product safety at the Pew Health Group, said advocates are pleased with the Senate bill and realize there is not enough time to push for some of the stronger House provisions.

The bill's prospects are still unclear, since there is little time during the brief lame-duck congressional session for the House and Senate to reconcile different versions.

Stephens Washington Bureau Chief Steve Tetreault contributed to this report.