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Food safety bill gets approval of Senate committee

The food safety bill took one more step toward becoming law. The Food and Drug Administration's Food Safety Modernization Act was unanimously approved by the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions.

If passed on the Senate floor, Senate Bill 510 would give the Food and Drug Administration broader oversight of the food supply in order to prevent and track foodborne outbreaks. The FDA would have the authority to inspect food processing facilities and order recalls. Some operators would be expected to pay fees and implement tracking plans.

The bill has been praised by many groups, including the Grocery Manufacturers Association and the Center for Science in the Public Interest, and as received bipartisan support. “Food safety is our number one priority, and we share the goals of S. 510,” said Pamela G. Bailey, president and chief executive officer of GMA, in a prepared statement.

But other groups have expressed reservations about some of the bill’s provisions and have pushed for clarification and changes. Chief among the concerns: the impact of registration fees on small farmers and the effect of potentially inconsistent standards for organic food.

These worries have fallen on listening ears, according to Mark Kastel, co-director and senior farm policy analyst for The Cornucopia Institute, a Cornucopia, Wis.-based progressive farm policy research group. Recent changes to the bill include ensuring coordination between the FDA and the U.S. Department of Agriculture on organic standards and making certain that small farmers or processors are not unduly burdened by the legislation.

“We think those are very important,” said Kastel. “We thought it would be ironic if the farmers we view as being the safest—organic and local producers—have the potential to be damaged and have their futures in question due to the mistakes of larger players.”

Despite strong support, the food safety bill might not get a Senate vote until 2010. Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, the health committee chairman, told reporters that the vote will come after the Senate has completed work on the health care bill.

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