WASHINGTON, D.C. - The Senate passed the largest overhaul of the U.S. food safety system in decades on Tuesday, a response to massive recalls such as last summer's recall of half a billion eggs in a salmonella outbreak.
The Senate voted 73-25 to pass the bill. The House of Representatives backed a different version in July 2009. With their post-election session due to end by mid-December, lawmakers have just weeks to resolve their differences and send legislation to President Barack Obama to sign into law.
"I urge the House, which has previously passed legislation demonstrating its strong commitment to making our food supply safer, to act quickly on this critical bill, and I applaud the work that was done to ensure its broad bipartisan passage in the Senate," Obama said in a statement.
The Senate legislation would give the U.S. Food and Drug Administration the power to order a food recall when a company refuses the agency's request that it do so voluntarily.
It also would allow the agency to step up inspections at the riskiest food processing plants, expand FDA capabilities to trace the source of foodborne disease outbreaks such as E. coli and salmonella, and increase the number of FDA inspectors at food plants.
"Today's vote will finally give the FDA the tools it needs to help ensure that the food on dinner tables and store shelves is safe," said Democratic Senator Dick Durbin, a sponsor of the bill.
Pressure to overhaul the food safety system has grown after high-profile outbreaks of illness involving lettuce, peppers, eggs, peanuts, spinach and, most recently, eggs that have shaken public confidence in the safety of the food supply.
U.S. regulation of food safety is fragmented -- split up among federal agencies. Consumer activists have complained that industry is given too much power to police itself.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration oversees the bulk of the U.S. food supply, but about 20 percent of the supply is overseen by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Biggest reform since 1930s
The legislation would deliver the biggest changes in the U.S. food safety system since 1930s.
The Senate measure would give the FDA more access to food processors' records. It also would require food makers to have a written food safety plan describing risk at their facilities and controls they use to prevent contamination.
A key difference between the two versions of the bill passed by lawmakers is language in the Senate measure applying a softer regulatory hand to small farms and food processors than to big companies.
Family-farm groups said the Senate language was a common-sense recognition that small producers who market directly in their regions operate in a different setting than multi-state or national food processors and retailers.
But industry groups like the National Cattlemen's Beef Association said there should be a single, uniform federal standard when it comes to food safety.
Consumer groups and food industry trade groups called on Congress to enact a final version of the bill before adjourning next month.
The Senate bill would:
-- require food makers to write a plan that identifies contamination risks and steps to keep food pure;
-- allow the FDA wide access to a food maker's records during a food emergency;
-- require importers to verify the safety of their merchandise;
-- allow the FDA to deny entry into the United States of imported food from plants that refuse U.S. inspection;
-- and permit the FDA to withhold food from sale for a short time if the food might be contaminated or mislabeled.
Outbreaks of foodborne illnesses have been linked to peanut butter and contaminated produce, and recently a large salmonella outbreak was linked to contaminated eggs, forcing the recall of more than half a billion eggs.
(Reporting by Charles Abbott; Editing by Will Dunham)