WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. food supply, battered by a series of recalls after millions were sickened, moved a step closer toward its first major safety overhaul in more than 70 years following a key vote in Congress on Wednesday.
The Senate voted 74-25 to limit debate on the food safety bill, which clears the legislation for a final vote where it is expected to pass. There is no timetable for when that could occur.
The bill would give the Food and Drug Administration broad powers over recalls, increase the rate of plant inspections and boost access to food facility records. The House of Representatives passed a similar version of food reform legislation in July 2009.
“There are people all across America who understand that when you go shopping at the food store and buy groceries or buy produce there is a sort of built-in assumption that it’s safe,” said Dick Durbin, the No. 2 Senate Democrat.
“The simple fact of the matter is there are wide gaps when it comes to food safety in America and those gaps need to be closed by this bill,” he said.
Pressure to overhaul the food safety system has grown following several high-profile outbreaks of foodborne illness since 2006 involving lettuce, peppers, peanuts, spinach and, most recently, eggs that have sickened millions and shaken the public’s confidence in the safety of the food supply.
The legislation, if passed, would be the largest overhaul of U.S. food safety laws since 1938 when Congress gave the FDA the authority to oversee the safety of food, drugs, and cosmetics.
The Senate bill was passed by the chamber’s health committee last November, but it has been delayed by the Senate’s busy agenda and by some lawmakers who have criticized the spending and regulatory hurdles created by the bill.
Backers are hopeful the bill will win final congressional approval, but acknowledge they must move quickly to do so before this session of Congress ends next month. Even if the bill passes the Senate, lawmakers still must iron out a handful of differences with the House measure before President Barack Obama, who backs the legislation, can sign it into law.
“The full-court press is on to get the bill through Congress and signed by the president before the end of the year,” said Ami Gadhia, policy counsel for Consumers Union.
“In the past two years, we’ve seen contaminations of everything from eggs to peanut butter to (the breakfast cereal) Froot Loops. We have waited long enough for safer food,” she said.
The recalls have affected a broad range of businesses from small family-run operations to large firms. Many businesses including Kellogg Co, whose company lost nearly $70 million in products from the peanut recall, and ConAgra Foods have been among those affected.
Foodborne illnesses sicken an estimated 76 million people in the United States each year and 5,000 die, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The House and Senate bills also would place more responsibility on the food industry by requiring manufacturers to identify food safety risks, monitor them and implement controls to prevent contamination.
One area where the House and Senate bills differ is the Senate version does not include a yearly fee to help pay for the increased oversight. The House would require processing plants to pay $500 per year, which the FDA would use for food safety measures, including stepped-up inspections and enforcement.