Congress manages to pass food safety bill despite itself

foodborne illness

The food safety bill changes the FDA's mission from reacting to food-borne illness to preventing tainted food. Image: CC Natalie Maynor/Flickr

The food safety bill finally passed through the lame-duck Congress like a kidney stone Tuesday. An earlier parliamentary glitch in the Senate and partisan bickering in the House of Representatives put the bill’s future in doubt. But common sense prevailed, and now the Food and Drug Administration has new powers to protect the nation from food-borne illness.

The Food Safety Modernization Act

A food safety bill that gives the FDA sweeping authority to determine and enforce domestic and imported food safety standards is headed for President Obama’s desk. The Food Safety Modernization Act overhauls U.S. food safety laws for the first time since the Great Depression. The food safety bill was supported by business and industry groups of every political stripe. Food safety groups lobbied for the legislation for two years. A stronger version of the bill passed the House more than a year ago with strong backing from both parties.

How a bill becomes a law today

Three weeks ago, the food safety bill passed in the Senate. However, leaders in the House discovered that the Senate added fees on importers, farmers and food processors involved in food recalls. Such a provision violates the U.S. Constitution’s Origination Clause. The Origination Clause requires that any tax increases must originate in the House. To keep the bill alive, the House put it in the omnibus spending bill, which failed in the Senate last week. But Republicans and Democrats shocked everyone Sunday by removing the offending tax language and passing the food safety bill with no advance notice.

Preventing food borne illness

The food safety bill changes the FDA from an agency reacting to outbreaks of food borne illness to one that prevents them from happening. The new law gives the FDA authority to enforce recalls of tainted food, instead of waiting for manufacturers to initiate them voluntarily. It also increases the budget for food inspections and gives the FDA authority to set standards for growing and harvesting produce. Food processing plants will have 18 months to comply with provisions requiring them to develop detailed plans for preventing food contamination.


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