Organic Consumers Association

Campaigning for health, justice, sustainability, peace, and democracy

Food Safety Bill Passes Senate, Including the Tester Amendment

Editor's Note: Thanks to all the groups who campaigned tirelessly on this issue. OCA is pleased that the Tester Amendment passed along with the bill, but like the Farm and Ranch Freedom Alliance (quoted below), we have some concerns about the implementation of these regulations and will continue to monitor this issue and keep our eye on the FDA.

WASHINGTON - The Senate on Tuesday passed a sweeping overhaul of the nation's food-safety system, after recalls of tainted eggs, peanut butter and spinach that sickened thousands and led major food makers to join consumer advocates in demanding stronger government oversight.

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.

Despite unusual bipartisan support on Capitol Hill and a strong push from the Obama administration, the bill could still die because there might not be enough time for the usual haggling between the Senate and House of Representatives, which passed its own version last year. Top House Democrats said that they would consider simply passing the Senate version to speed approval.

Both versions of the bill would grant the F.D.A. new powers to recall tainted foods, increase inspections, demand accountability from food companies and oversee farming. But neither version would consolidate overlapping functions at the Department of Agriculture and nearly a dozen other federal agencies that oversee various aspects of food safety, making coordination among the agencies a continuing challenge.

While food-safety advocates and many industry groups preferred the House version because it includes more money for inspections and fewer exceptions from the rules it sets out, most said the Senate bill was far better than nothing.

"This is an historic moment," said Erik Olson, deputy director of the Pew Health Group, an advocacy group. "For the first time in over 70 years, the Senate has approved an overhaul of F.D.A.'s food safety law that will help ensure that the food we put on our kitchen tables will be safer."

Among the Senate bill's last major sticking points was how it would affect small farmers and food producers. Some small-farm and organic food advocates warned that the legislation would destroy their industry under a mountain of paperwork, and Senator Jon Tester, a Democrat of Montana, pushed for a recent addition to the bill that exempts producers with less than $500,000 a year in sales who sell most of their food locally. 

...Judith McGeary, executive director of the Farm and Ranch Freedom Alliance, an advocacy group that sees government regulation as a threat to small farms, said she was satisfied with changes made to the bill to reduce paperwork for small farmers and exempt them from some requirements.

"We still have concerns about the scope of the power that F.D.A. has and its tendency to write rules and regulations that favor agribusiness instead of small farmers," Ms. McGeary said. 

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