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Despite the best efforts of Tom Coburn and 24 of his Republican cohorts to protect food poisoners, the Senate has just passed landmark legislation providing the FDA with more authority to oversee food safety in this country.

The legislation, which passed by a vote of 73 to 25, would greatly strengthen the Food and Drug Administration, an agency that in recent decades focused more on policing medical products than ensuring the safety of foods. The bill is intended to get the government to crack down on unsafe foods before they harm people rather than after outbreaks occur.

Some of the provisions of the new law opposed by Republicans in the Senate, include:

Gives the FDA authority to recall contaminated foods. It is currently a voluntary system (!)

- Exempts farmers selling less than $500,000 each year that "directly market to consumers in a 275 mile areas.

- Increases inspections at food facilities. Once every three years for high-risk facilities.

- Requires importers to verify food safety.

- Increases traceability and tracking of high risk foods. Creates a pilot program to increase contamination traceability.

- Allows FDA to access records if there is reasonable probability a food is causing sickness or death in humans or animals.

- Allows FDA to create new standards for the safety of fresh produce.

- FDA can collect fees for non-compliance with recalls or reinspections.

- FDA must form new regulations on safe food transport conditions.

- FDA can allow outside laboratories to conduct third party inspections to ease the load for the FDA.

- Increases funding and staff at FDA.

The bill is here.

The provision regarding importation mandates that imported food be subject to the same regulations governing food produced in this country. The provision exempting smaller growers was made in part at the behest of local and organic growers who feared overregulation would price them out of the market.  

This is a major accomplishment, possibly the last major legislation actually benefitting all Americans we will see out of this or any Congress in the foreseeable future. Remarkably enough, some Republican Senators' staff found they had something in common with their colleagues on the other side of the aisle--both groups generally prefer to eat food without fear of being poisoned:

The group bonded over snacks: specifically, Starburst candies from a staff member of Senator Mike Enzi, a Wyoming Republican, and jelly beans from a staff member of Senator Richard J. Durbin, an Illinois Democrat. And in the midst of negotiations, the negotiators — nearly all women — took a field trip to a nearby food market so that a Republican staff member could teach the Democrats how to buy high-quality steaks.

The last major overhaul of food safety in this country was in 1938. Food-borne illnesses cost the country  152 Billion dollars per year. True to form, however, Tom Coburn and 24 Republican Senators believed that less regulation (as opposed to more) was the solution:

The staunch opposition of Senator Tom Coburn, an Oklahoma Republican, forced months of delay and eventually required Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada to call a series of time-consuming procedural votes to end debate. Mr. Coburn offered his own version of the legislation eliminating many of its requirements because he said less regulation was needed, not more, but that version failed.

Coburn held up the legislation for approximately three months. So by my calculation, he cost the country about 40 billion dollars.  Someone should remind him and his friends of this the next time they appear on the Senate floor arguing about the need to reduce deficits and increase American productivity. That and the fact that this law would likely never have survived a Republican House.

The New York Times article notes that the House had a competing (and superior)  bill and the two must be reconciled if the legislation is to pass muster for the President's signature.  However, the Bloomberg article cited above states:

The House, which passed a food-safety bill last year, has agreed to adopt the Senate version, bypassing the need for a conference to integrate the two bills, [Tom] Harkin said Nov. 18. Once both chambers have approved the measure, lawmakers will send it to President Barack Obama for his signature. The White House supports the legislation, according to a statement issued Nov. 16 by the Office of Management and Budget.

It should be emphasized that this bill would not regulate meat, poultry or processed eggs. Those food products are already regulated by the Department of Agriculture.

UPDATE: The opposition from the "Tea Party" was particularly idiotic.

Critics of the legislation, including people who write newsletters circulated among tea party supporters, said the food safety bill gave the government too much power. Some said it would allow federal agents to ban the seeds people use for their backyard vegetable patches.

Originally posted to Dartagnan on Tue Nov 30, 2010 at 10:35 AM PST.

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