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House approves food safety bill

After yesterday's false start, the House finally approved a long awaited overhaul to food safety laws. The new law will give the Food and Drug Administration a stronger arm to regulate the way food is grown, harvested and processed. A day after it was rejected, the measure passed by a margin of 283 to 142. Upon the bill's first falter, Democrats worked to put the legislation back on the House floor today (Thursday) under a rule that requires a simple majority to pass. The Senate will begin its own review of the House bill after their August recess.

For the food industry, the bill will give FDA authority to order recalls even if a company chooses not to act. The bill will also up the frequency of inspections to high-risk food processing facilities. The cost to food processors is an annual $500 fee to defray expenses. According to the AP, last minute changes included modifying a traceability system for grains. The new bill would not require back to the farm traceability for grains doing so was perceived as too invasive to farmers and would do little to improve food safety. This change was led by Oklahoma Rep. Frank Lucas, the top Republican on the House Agriculture Committee. He told the Associated Press, "The bill still goes too far in the direction of trying to produce food from a bureaucrat's chair in Washington D.C.

Armchair politics withstanding, the decision lies in a wake of food-borne illnesses and recalls during the past two years. In fact just as the bill was passed, Memphis newspapers reported a salmonella beef outbreak that has sickened 20 as of press time. The loss of human life is at 5,000 per year with as many as 25% of Americans sickened by food borne illnesses.

The cost to the food industry, though secondary to human illness and death, is in the billions due to recalls, legal costs, lost sales and bruised consumer confidence. In an earlier statement, the Grocery Manufacturers Association, said, "We are pleased by the commitment of Congress and the Obama Administration to enact food safety reforms and strengthen FDA's food safety capabilities. Combined with quick enactment of the necessary legislative and regulatory reforms, these initiatives should significantly reduce the number and type of food recalls we have seen in recent years and strengthen our overall food safety system."

The bill's author Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.), told the Washington Post, "Americans are dying because the Food and Drug Administration does not have authority to protect them and American producers and agriculture are being hurt," said the bill's author, who has pushed for food safety reform for as many as 20 years. "This will fundamentally change the way in which we ensure the safety of our food supply."

Connecticut Rep. Rosa DeLauro is pleased with the bill, but she told reporters from the Associated Press that Congress needs to approve the reorganization of FDA into two distinct agencies with separate oversight for food and drug. It is well known that while FDA regulates some foods, USDA overseas others and still other food inspections involve more than two dozen agencies.

The bill reads at 160 pages. For the full text, click here.
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