WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The House passed a bill for a sweeping reform of the U.S. food safety system, a vote immediately praised by President Barack Obama as step to protect Americans from tainted food.
The bill would give the Food and Drug Administration the power to order food recalls, requires all facilities to have a food safety plan in place, increases the frequency of food inspections and expands FDA access to company records.
“This action represents a major step forward in modernizing our food safety system and protecting Americans from food-borne illness,” said Obama in a statement that listed administration actions for safe food. Obama thanked the House and said he will work with the Senate “to enact critical food-safety legislation.”
A Senate companion to the House bill was filed earlier this year by Assistant Majority Leader Richard Durbin. FDA oversees fruits, vegetables and processed foods that do not contain meat — overall, the bulk of the U.S. food supply.
Representatives passed the bill a day after they defeated it. The bill originally was debated in a format that limited debate but required a two-thirds majority for passage. On both days, no amendments were allowed.
“It will fundamentally change the way we protect the safety of the food supply,” said Michigan Democrat John Dingell, floor manager of the bill. He said the bill would give modern regulatory tools to FDA and the money to use them.
An estimated 76 million Americans fall sick each year from food-borne illness and 5,000 die, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Consumers want to trust that the food they eat, no matter where it comes from, won’t harm them,” said Consumers Union, which urged prompt Senate approval.
Since 2006, outbreaks have been linked to peanuts, peppers, spinach and other commonly eaten foods.
“Every day, it seems like it’s something new,” said Louise Slaughter, New York state Democrat and backer of the bill. She said the bill would help FDA prevent outbreaks by increased inspections and other food safety work.
The bill would increase FDA funding, partly by a $500 a year registration fee for processing plants. Opponents like Frank Lucas, Oklahoma Republican, said it does not require more food inspections. “Totally false,” replied Dingell, who said inspections were one of the steps eligible for the new money.
Senior Democrats said they revised the bill repeatedly to assure it would not bury small farmers in paperwork and to exempt them from the registration fee. Small farms that sell directly to consumers, restaurants or retailers would not be subject to a food trace-back system authorized by the bill.
A section of the bill dealing with fresh produce was modified so FDA would issue standards only for the riskiest types of products.
Skeptics said the small-farm exemptions are not iron-clad. The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition said FDA would judge if a farm gets most of its money from direct sales. Small farms that sell cheese, jam or other products to wholesalers would be subject to the fee and traceability, it said.
Under the bill, inspections would take place every six to 12 months at high-risk facilities and every three years as lower-risk plants. At present, plants may not see inspectors for several years.
Reporting by Charles Abbott; Editing by Marguerita Choy