WASHINGTON, D.C. (Reuters) - The ailing U.S. food safety system moved closer on Dec. 21 toward its biggest overhaul in more than 70 years after the House of Representatives passed legislation that would increase inspections and give regulators the power to recall tainted foods.
The House voted 215-144 to pass a food safety bill. The legislation has already been passed by the Senate and will now be sent to President Barack Obama, who has supported the measure and is expected to sign it into law.
"This is an opportunity that will not come again for a long time," said Henry Waxman, chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. "There is no question that this is a good bill, and that it will provide (the Food and Drug Administration) with some critical new authorities."
Pressure to overhaul the food safety system has grown following several high-profile outbreaks involving lettuce, peppers, eggs, peanuts, spinach and most recently eggs since 2006 that have sickened thousands and shaken the public's confidence in the safety of the food supply.
The legislation would be the largest overhaul of U.S. food safety laws since 1938, when Congress gave the FDA the authority to oversee the safety of food, drugs and cosmetics.
Since then, the food supply has grown into a vast network dependent on more fresh foods and imported products, but oversight laws have largely failed to keep pace.
"This is a big victory for consumers that finally brings food-safety laws into the 21st century," said Jean Halloran, the director of food policy initiatives at Consumers Union.
"For a long time, we've been saying that we needed to do a better job of making sure our food is safe, and under this bill, we will," she said.
Some Republicans who opposed the bill said it will lead to higher prices for consumers and does not do enough to justify the $1.4 billion cost of implementation.
"This legislation is the product of a flawed process," said Frank Lucas, the top Republican on the House Agriculture Committee. "It gives the Food and Drug Administration lots of additional authorities with no accountability."
Food-borne illnesses strike an estimated 48 million people in the United States each year, killing 3,000, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated last week.
Lawmakers, consumer groups and the FDA itself have aggressively pushed for five years for an overhaul of the food safety system that would give FDA additional resources and enforcement tools, shifting its focus toward preventing, rather than reacting, to food-borne outbreaks.
"For too long the cornerstone of our food safety system, the FDA, has only had ancient tools and an outdated mandate at its disposal," said Rosa DeLauro, chairman of the House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee.
"This bill will go a long way toward stemming the potential of a full-blown food-borne epidemic in the future," she said.
The legislation would give the FDA, which oversees 80 percent of the U.S. food supply, the power to order a food recall when a company refuses the agency's request that it do so voluntarily.
More responsibility would be placed on the food industry by requiring manufacturers to identify food safety risks, monitor them and implement controls to prevent contamination.
The FDA also would step up inspections at the riskiest food-processing facilities, and allow the FDA wide access to a food maker's records during a food emergency.
The agency would wield tougher oversight over imported foods. Imports would need to meet U.S. safety standards, and would be denied entry if they failed to do so.
The recalls in recent years have affected a broad range of businesses from small family-run operations to large firms.
Many firms including Kellogg Co, whose company lost nearly $70 million in products from the peanut recall, and ConAgra Foods have been among those affected.
A recent study estimated food-borne illnesses cost the United States $152 billion in health-related expenses each year.
(Editing by Philip Barbara)