One Small Step for Food Safety

Bipartisan cooperation isn't something you see very often these days. But the Senate just passed The Food Safety Modernization Act by a vote of 73 to 25. 14 Republicans joined Democrats in support of the bill, which gives the Food and Drug Administration broad new powers to regulate food safety, makes farmers and food producers more responsible for making sure their products aren’t contaminated, and requires imported foods to meet safety standards. “This is a historic moment,” The Pew Health Group’s Erik Olson said. “For the first time in over 70 years, the Senate has approved an overhaul of F.D.A.’s food safety law that will help ensure that the food we put on our kitchen tables will be safer.”

The bill comes on the heels of a number of national food poisoning incidents. Most notably, over the summer thousands of Americans got salmonella from eggs coming from unsanitary henhouses that had never been subject to food safety inspections.  The main opposition to the bill comes from Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK), who argues that the bill will create expensive new regulations without actually making the food supply safer. But thousands of Americans die from food-borne illnesses every year. Consumers have little power to ensure the safety of the food they buy, and food producers are reluctant to recall their products, even after it becomes clear they may be tainted. Moreover, as Michael Pollan and Eric Schlosser point out, the $350 million the Congressional Budget Office projects the regulations will cost is a small amount of money in comparison with the $152 billion—including $1.8 billion just in Coburn’s home state of Oklahoma—a Georgetown study estimates food-borne illnesses cost Americans every year.

In spite of being popular with voters and enjoying bipartisan support, the bill may still never become law. Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA), who has pushed the bill in the Senate, says that House leaders have agreed to take up the Senate version, which is somewhat less stringent than the version the House has already passed. But there are still disagreements over whether small farms and organic food producers should be required to meet the same standards are larger food companies. And Roll Call reports that the Senate bill may inappropriately introduce new taxes—which only the House has the authority to do—which would force the bill back to the Senate, where it would be difficult to take up the bill again before the end of the lame duck session. And if the bill gets tabled until the new Congress comes in next year, there’s no guarantee it will ever get past both houses of Congress.

Photo credit: Rüdiger Wolk, Münster

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