Food Safety Bill Advances in Senate

The U.S. Senate last week voted to move forward to the final debate on legislation aimed at amending regulatory controls on both domestic and foreign food supplies.  The Senate voted 74-25 to invoke cloture on S. 510, the Food Safety Modernization Act.  The bill is sponsored by Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and a bipartisan group of 20 other Senators.

The procedural vote was designed to open the final round of the Senate's food safety debate, although it is unclear wither the Senate Democratic leaders will allow additional amendments to the bill on the Senate floor.  Some Senate Republicans have urged that they be allowed unlimited amendments during floor debate leading up to the vote on final passage.  While some amendments may be designed to strengthen the FDA inspection process of both domestic and foreign food production facilities, one highly controversial step would be if Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif. again offers an amendment to the bill that would impose a federal ban on the
use of bisphenol A in children's food packaging. 

That position does not hold substantial support in the Senate, and her shrill insistence on the ban delayed Senate action on a much larger and more comprehensive legislative package.  Indeed, a member of her own party, Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.), criticized her in a public letter for holding up this bill.  Other key remaining issues include treatment of small farmers, and the role, if any, of local and state food inspections.

The bill would give the FDA new authority to track and halt contaminated food coming from domestic and foreign suppliers. Food facilities would be required to provide additional information to the FDA, submit to more frequent inspections and to develop their own tracking systems. The agency would also get new mandatory recall authority over tainted food, and additional authority to deal with misbranded or adulterated products.

The House passed a companion bill, H.R. 2749, the Food Safety Enhancement Act, by a vote of 283-142, in July 2009.  The typical conference committee to iron out differences may be an issue given the lateness in the lame-duck session in Congress. It is possible the House could vote to accept the Senate version, if it indeed passes.

There are about 76 million cases of food-borne illnesses every year in the U.S., leading to 325,000 hospitalizations and 5,000 deaths, according to the CDC.