It seems likely US consumers will be able to rest a little easier in the months and years ahead, as the Senate passed a bill Sunday evening that will increase safety regulations for most foods, and help prevent outbreaks of food-born bacteria like Salmonella and E. coli. The Food Safety Modernization Act still awaits a vote in the US House of Representatives and must be signed into law by President Obama. However the House is expected to pass the Senate version, and President Obama says he will support the legislation as well.
Sunday’s senate vote is a significant victory for food safety advocates as the bill’s history has been fraught with unexpected obstacles to passage, and many observers feared it would die before the current Congress adjourns for the last time later this month. In fact while it enjoying broader bi-partisan support than most major pieces of legislation this year, the journey of the Food Safety Modernization Act is one of the strangest stories of any bill considered by Congress in 2010.
Supported by both Democrats and Republicans, the earliest version of the Food Safety Modernization Act passed the House of Representatives by a very wide margin in the summer of last year. However facing a full agenda, including time-consuming issues like the health care debate that took months to resolve, the Senate did not get around to seriously taking up food safety until this fall. For the bill to become law the Senate had to pass it before Congress adjourns. Otherwise lawmakers would have had to start all over in 2011 when the new Congress is sworn into office.
The Senate passed its version of the Food Safety Modernization Act last month, but afterwards a procedural error was discovered that invalidated the vote. With time running out before the end of the session, it seemed like the Senate might not get another chance to vote on the bill. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid attached a corrected version to a separate funding bill the Senate was scheduled to vote on, and meanwhile Democrats in the House again voting to pass the legislation from their chamber. Yet the Senate funding bill failed to pass, leading many observers to conclude food safety reform was dead for the year.
Then in an unforeseen event Sunday evening, Senator Reid struck a deal with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell that the two leaders would encourage both Democrats and Republicans to support resurrecting the bill. Reid called for a last-minute vote, and the Food Safety Modernization Act passed the Senate by unanimous consent. A final House vote on the version passed by the Senate is expected in the next few days. But since the House has already voted to support similar legislation twice in the last year and a half, this is not expected to be a major hurdle.
Groups like the Consumer Federation of America and the Consumers Union say the Food Safety Modernization Act will help prevent outbreaks of potentially deadly disease. The bill sets new safety guidelines to prevent contamination of food with disease-causing bacteria, and gives the federal Food and Drug Administration greater authority to force companies to recall tainted food. Responding to concerns that requirements in the bill would be difficult for small farmers to meet, the version passed by the Senate also contains an amendment designed to protect small food producers. The bill represents the first major overhaul of US food safety policy since the 1930s.
Bill Marler, publisher of the web site Food Safety News, commended Democrats and Republicans for coming together to pass food safety legislation. “I think it says something good about Democrats and Republicans this holiday season,” said Marler. “The process [of passing the bill] was not pretty, but politics was put aside for this and the safety of the U.S. food supply has been enhanced.”
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