Sunday Surprise: Senate Passes Food Safety Bill | Civil Eats

Sunday Surprise: Senate Passes Food Safety Bill

The food safety bill–S. 510, the Food Safety Modernization Act–which some had given up for dead, was revived late Sunday attached to a shell bill and passed unanimously just before the Senate adjourned for the day.

The bill, with the Tester-Hagan small farm exemption intact, now goes back to the House. But the action will likely put the food safety law on President Obama’s desk before Christmas.

“Yes, consumers, there is a Santa Claus!,” the Consumer Federation of America effused.

Sunday’s Senate move came as a surprise, especially because no Republican objected to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s request for his colleagues to pass the food safety bill by unanimous consent.

No one objected, not even Republican Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn.

“Tonight we unanimously passed a measure to improve on our current food safety system by giving the FDA the resources it needs to keep up with advances in food production and marketing, without unduly burdening farmers and food producers,” Reid said in a statement.

The majority leader said this marks the first time in almost a century that the food safety system has been updated in such a broad manner. He called it a “common-sense issue with broad bipartisan support.”

Reid’s success Sunday night was not even predicted by his own staff earlier in the day.

The food safety bill has had a tortured life. The House passed its version (H.R 2749) in July of 2009 by a vote of 283 to 142. The Senate did not move on its version (S. 510) until last month after a compromise (the Tester-Hagan Amendment) was reached between Small Ag, Big Ag and consumer groups. The final vote was 73 to 25.

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However, Section 107 of S. 510 contained a fee provision that the House Parliamentarian considered a tax in violation of the “Origination Clause” of the Constitution, which states that the House must initiate revenue measures.

The House then appended S. 510 to the “Omnibus Spending Bill,” in essence the 2011 Budget. That bill was narrowly approved by a 212 to 206 vote, but when the Senate refused to take up the spending bill, the food safety legislation was left in limbo–until Sunday evening.

The bill’s goal is to increase the Food and Drug Administration’s powers to keep food safe by increasing inspections of food facilities, placing stricter standards on imported foods and giving the agency broader authority to order a recall.

As word of the bill’s new life got out, advocates expressed their relief. Many were part of a coalition that had sent a letter Sunday to Reid and Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, asking them to act quickly to save the bill before the end of the session.

Caroline Smith DeWaal, food safety director for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, said, “The Senate made good on its promise to pass food safety legislation tonight when it passed a corrected version of the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act. It is a huge victory for consumers following a weekend cliffhanger as both consumer and industry supporters prepared for bad news. Senator Harkin, Senator Reid and Senator McConnell are to be congratulated on their skill in making sure American families will enjoy greater protection and safer food in 2011 and beyond.”

Jean Halloran, director of Food Policy Initiatives at Consumers Union, said, “This is a wonderful day for consumers. This day will be especially important to families whose children have suffered lasting damage to their health, and families who have even lost a child, because of contaminated food. Many of them have worked hard for this bill to prevent others from having to go through a similar ordeal. This bill gives FDA essential tools like mandatory recall authority to insure that the food we eat is safe.”

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Originally published on Food Safety News.

Dan Flynn is a Denver-based writer and editor with more than 10 years of food safety experience. As a public affairs professional, he worked with government and regulatory agencies at the local, state, and federal levels. His career as a journalist included working for newspapers throughout the West, from the Black Hills to Seattle. Most of the disasters he attends these days involve food illnesses. Read more >

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