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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A U.S. Senate committee voted unanimously on Wednesday to increase government oversight of food safety but the first significant overhaul in 50 years may not happen until 2010.
Pressure to overhaul the food safety system has grown following several high-profile outbreaks involving lettuce, peppers, peanuts and spinach since 2006 that have sickened thousands and killed several.
However, the full Senate probably won't vote on the bill until 2010 as Congress is currently mired in debate about overhauling the U.S. healthcare system, said Tom Harkin, chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.
"I really, honestly, I just don't see how we'll get to it before Christmas," Harkin said of the food safety bill.
The Senate bill would expand U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) oversight of the food supply and shift its focus toward preventing, rather than reacting, to foodborne outbreaks. FDA would have the power to order recalls, increase inspection rates and require all facilities to have a food safety plan.
"There are very few things that are as important as ensuring that the food we eat and the food we serve our families is safe for consumption," said Sen. Christopher Dodd, a member of the committee.
The Senate bill is similar to legislation passed by the House in July in many key areas. One area where they differ is the Senate bill does not include a yearly fee to help pay for the increased oversight.
The House would require processing plants to pay $500 per year.
The Senate version could include a fee once the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office determines the price tag of the Senate bill, Harkin said.
"If this is for public protection, it's something we all ought to pay for," he said.
An estimated 76 million people in the United States get sick every year with foodborne illness and 5,000 die, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The Senate legislation would require FDA to inspect all food facilities at least once every four years and high-risk plants no less than once a year. Currently, many facilities can go several years without being inspected.
It also would implement traceability for fruits and vegetables, and require the FDA to conduct a pilot study for processed foods.
Consumer groups, which have long pushed for food safety reform, backed the Senate bill and urged Congress to pass legislation this year.
"This is another milestone on the path to fixing our badly broken system for food safety," said Jean Halloran, a director at Consumers Union. "The bipartisan support for this bill is strong, and momentum is building."
Big U.S. food companies have pushed for stronger food safety legislation, worried that more food scares may erode consumer confidence and hurt sales.
"There are not big substantive disagreements that will stand in the way of legislation," said Scott Faber, a vice president at the Grocery Manufacturers Association, who expected food safety to pass next year.
Editing by Lisa Shumaker