Voting 283 for and 142 against, the House last week passed the Food Safety Enhancement Act of 2009,  a bill that would greatly expand the Food and Drug Administration’s authority over companies that handle or sell raw and processed foods, including farms. The bill (H.R. 2749) would require hundreds of thousands of domestic and foreign facilities operating within the U.S. or importing food to the U.S. to register annually with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, to pay annual registration fees to the FDA, and would subject them to more frequent, periodic inspections and require increased measures to prevent contamination. The bill gives the FDA greater power to recall contaminated foods and to quarantine the facilities that produced them. (While the bill would be partly financed by registration and inspection fees, it calls for additional congressional appropriations projected at $2 billion over five years. )

Early in the week, the bill fell 7 votes short, but a second vote came up with additional support.  The bill has divided the food industry. The Grocery Manufacturers Association, a food industry group, has come out in support of the legislation, saying it echoes the group’s own ideas about food safety. Many farmers, however, have questioned the new rules. The legislation also seeks to enhance the FDA’s ability to trace the origin of tainted food — a huge issue in recent food recalls — in the event of an outbreak of food-borne illness. FDA Commissioner Dr. Margaret A. Hamburg has come out in support of the bill.

Other key provisions of the bill:

  • FDA inspections of food facilities would increase from as infrequent as once every 10 years to annually for high-risk facilities and at least once every 3 years for facilities deemed a lower risk. Recalls The FDA could mandate the recall of tainted foods, instead of relying on food makers to pull items voluntarily.
  • FDA would get authority to set standards for safe production of food on farms, as well as require food manufacturers to meet new specific safety standards.
  • HHS would identify new technology to be used by food growers, manufacturers and distributors to determine the origin of food and its movement through the supply chain.