The U.S. Senate is expected to vote today on a food safety bill that could grant the FDA tremendously increased power and resources to prevent food poisoning outbreaks.
The senate voted 75-25 to limit debate on the bill earlier this week, overcoming a potential filibuster attempt by Senator Tom Coburn, who has objected to the bill’s estimated $1.4 billion price tag. That cleared the way for a senate vote, which is expected to take place today.
If approved, the Food Safety Modernization Act (pdf) would give the FDA more power to regulate the food industry and would require food producers to meet new stringent monitoring and safety standards designed to detect and prevent outbreaks of food-borne illnesses, such as salmonella, E. coli, and other bacteria. It would also allow the FDA to quickly issue food recalls, instead of waiting for businesses to recall food voluntarily following an FDA safety warning.
The House passed a similar bill in 2009, but that bill died when there was no further action. Senate leaders say they hope that the House will accept the senate version of the bill so that it can be on President Barack Obama’s desk before the end of the lame-duck session. Rep. Henry Waxman, one of the House bill’s authors, said he would be willing to support the senate version in order to move the bill through this session.
The bill has received wide support from the food industry, although smaller producers have complained that the bill may put them at a disadvantage to larger companies. Although the bill has enjoyed bipartisan support, there are some Republicans who believe the bill will be too much of a burden on growers and food producers, and fear that the FDA will become “trigger happy” with its newfound recall power.
There are approximately 76 million foodborne illnesses each year in the United States, according to a report released in June, “Enhancing Food Safety: The Role of the Food and Drug Administration,” which was requested by Congress. Those illnesses cause more than 300,000 hospitalizations and 5,000 deaths annually.
For the FDA to properly regulate an estimated 80% of the nation’s food supply, the agency’s food safety departments need to be restructured to fit a risk-based approach that coordinates data and expertise to quickly find the weak links in the food production and distribution chains where contamination and other problems are most likely to occur, analysts said in the report. Then the agency would be able to quickly and efficiently target the problem areas with the necessary resources and increase its chances of catching dangerous, and sometimes deadly, food outbreaks before they occur.
One of the incidents that triggered motion on the bill, which had been stalled over Sen. Coburn’s objections, was a national egg recall that federal investigators estimate sickened about 1,500 people with salmonella. One of the egg farms implicated in the outbreak had a long history of FDA violations.