House panel passes food safety reform bill

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A U.S. House Committee on Wednesday passed legislation that would increase government oversight of the U.S. food supply, which has been tarnished by a series of high-profile outbreaks since 2006.

The measure, cleared by a voice vote in the House Energy and Commerce committee, would be the most sweeping reform of the food safety system in close to 50 years.

Efforts to overhaul the antiquated food safety system and give the U.S. Food and Drug Administration -- which regulates 80 percent of the country’s food supply -- more authority and funding have surged following outbreaks tied to lettuce, peppers, spinach, peanuts and peanut butter in recent years.

The bill broadens FDA’s regulatory authority by requiring all facilities to have a food safety plan in place, giving FDA mandatory recall authority and allowing FDA greater access to company records.

“But FDA will not be the only cop on the beat,” said the committee chair, Rep. Henry Waxman.

“One of the most important changes that will occur under this bill is a new focus on prevention, and a shared responsibility between FDA and food manufacturers to keep the food supply safe,” he said.

The legislation would require the industry to pay $500 per facility each year as part of a registration fee, generating an estimated $189 million. Lawmakers said the funding would go toward increasing plant inspections and other food safety activities. A cap would be set so no single company would pay more than $175,000.

Inspections would take place every six to 12 months at high-risk facilities and between 18 months and three years for those deemed to be at lower risk. Currently, many facilities can go several years without being inspected.

The food industry, though still concerned by some provisions of the bill, has shown support for the new legislation.

“Because consumer confidence is the foundation of everything we do, manufacturers take food safety very seriously,” said Pamela Bailey, president and chief executive of the Grocery Manufacturers Association.

“We look forward to working with Congress to swiftly enact food safety legislation,” she added.

Similar food safety legislation also has been introduced in the Senate, but there is no timetable when the bipartisan measure will be taken up.

Waxman said he wanted the strong vote out of committee to “send a loud message about the need to move this legislation quickly.”

“I am hopeful that before too long, we can have a comprehensive food safety bill on President Obama’s desk,” 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.

Reporting by Jasmin Melvin; additional reporting by Christopher Doering; Editing by Lisa Shumaker