Food Safety Bill Passes in House; Heads to Obama for Signature

Harpoon Harry's: spinach salad with warm bacon dressingAfter a year in legal limbo and what looked like certain defeat only weeks ago, the House this afternoon passed the Food Safety Modernization Act (a.k.a. S. 510), paving the way for the first overhaul of America's food safety system in seven decades.

The vote was 255-144 mostly along party lines (Democrats, yes; Republicans, no) with many large-scale food producers opposed to the bill. Why all the hoopla and what does S. 510 actually do?

After the tainted eggs, spinach and hamburger outbreaks of the past few years, this bill would give the beleaguered Food & Drug Administration a massive steroid injection, transforming it from a reactive agency into more of a regulatory one. Whether that increases enforcement or incompetence at the FDA remains to be seen.

Right now, the FDA, which regulates about 80% of the nation's food supply, can only respond when a food-borne outbreak occurs. The new law allows the agency to regulate food producers before such outbreaks occur -- hopefully.

The rundown:

- Allows the FDA to issue direct food recalls. Currently, recalls are issued voluntarily by food producers.

- Allows the FDA to set national standards for growing & harvesting produce.

- Directs the Secretary of Health and Human Services to create a streamlined tracking system that will more easily find the source of an outbreak.

- The FDA can require importers to adhere to U.S. food safety standards and verify the safety of their products.

- Requires food producers will have to examine their production methods, identify possible sources of contamination and develop written food safety plans to prevent that from occurring.

- Requires the FDA to increase inspection of food plants, both in this country and abroad.

- Protects whistle-blowers who report unsafe conditions in food plants.

After passing in the Senate in late November, S. 510 stalled in the House until a whole lot of backroom wheeling and dealing brought the bill to the floor. Today's vote in the House will send the bill to President Obama, who is expected to sign it into law before Christmas.

The real test will come in putting the law into action. S. 510 could be made toothless if the FDA doesn't receive the funding to carry out these directives. "Republicans who will gain control of the House next year have vowed to slash spending on many domestic programs and deep cuts could hobble the F.D.A. just as it gains the new authority," reports the New York Times.


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