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Food Safety Bill Passes: 'Victory for Food Movement'

Food-Safety Rules Adopted by Congress

by Andrew Aylward

The most significant changes to food safety regulation in 70 years were approved by Congress on Tuesday, giving broad new powers to the Food and Drug Administration to step up inspections aimed at preventing outbreaks of disease in the nation's food production system.

The law also exempts small, local growers in California and elsewhere from the strictest of new regulations - an exception that recognizes higher risks of contamination among large food producers and the reality that frequent inspections would be too expensive for small farmers.

Approved on a 215-144 bipartisan House vote, the new regulations also include FDA-initiated recalls and for the first time hold imported food to the same standards as domestic food. The Senate approved the bill in its final version on Sunday. House approval sends the measure to President Obama for his signature.

"It's a victory for the food movement, which was able to draw a line between the specific risks of highly industrialized food production and the narrower but still real risks of producing food on a smaller scale," said Michael Pollan, a UC Berkeley journalism professor and best-selling author.

The bill gives vast authority to the FDA to inspect produce for bacterial contamination that could lead to salmonella or E. coli diseases in a wide array of products.

Peanuts, peppers, spinach, jalapenos and eggs have come under closer scrutiny as the FDA and food producers attempt to head off food-borne illnesses such as a salmonella outbreak last summer that led to the recall of half a billion eggs and sickened hundreds of people across 14 states. The Department of Agriculture continues to have authority over meat, poultry and some dairy products.

According to a study released last week by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1 in 6 Americans gets sick each year from food-borne diseases and about 3,000 of those cases result in fatalities. The report found salmonella to be the leading cause of hospitalization and death among known food pathogens.

The new law gives the FDA the power to initiate food recalls and have access to company records at farms and production centers to help track outbreaks of food-borne illnesses. In addition, the FDA will set quality standards for imported produce, which makes up a higher portion of Americans' diets than ever before.

The bill is expected to cost $1.4 billion over the next four years, which includes hiring 2,000 FDA inspectors.

Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., added an amendment to the federal legislation that exempts producers with less than $500,000 in annual sales and who sell either within a state or within 275 miles of their location.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., added an amendment to the Senate version of the bill that would have banned bisphenol-A, the chemical used in cans and other food packaging that has been linked to health problems. The amendment was defeated.

Large agriculture groups were disappointed by passage of the bill, particularly the exemption for small farmers. But the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, a grassroots agriculture group, said it will create "scale-appropriate standards to promote food safety without undermining family farm production, natural resource conservation and local entrepreneurship."

Consumer groups also praised the bill.

"This win is a powerful testament to the people across the country who came to Washington to tell their lawmakers how contaminated food had killed their loved ones or left them horribly sick," said Jean Halloran, director of food policy initiatives at Consumers Union.

 

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