Food safety bill gets OK in Senate
Would give FDA more authority to recall products
WASHINGTON — The Senate has voted to move forward on a far-reaching food safety bill that would give the Food and Drug Administration more power to prevent foodborne illnesses.
The Senate voted 74-25 to proceed with the bill. Supporters needed 60 votes because Senator Tom Coburn, Republican of Oklahoma, had objected, saying the legislation’s $1.4 billion cost isn’t paid for.
The bill would give the FDA more authority to recall tainted products, increase inspections of food processors, and require producers to follow stricter standards for keeping food safe. The action followed outbreaks of contaminated peanuts, eggs, and produce that have sickened hundreds.
Also yesterday, the Senate blocked a measure designed to reduce wage disparities between men and women. The 58-41 vote to take up the Paycheck Fairness Act fell short of the 60 needed to overcome GOP opposition.
Civil rights groups, labor leaders, and the Obama administration supported the bill, which would make employers prove that any disparities in wages are job-related and not gender-based. Republicans and business groups said the bill would expose employers to more litigation by removing limits on punitive and compensatory damage awards.
President Obama said he was “deeply disappointed’’ at the pay equity vote and blamed “a partisan minority of senators’’ for blocking the measure. A similar bill easily passed in the House last year. Whether the food safety bill could make it to the president’s desk during the brief lame-duck congressional session is unclear because the House passed a different version of the legislation in 2009.
Even if the Senate passes the bill, the two pieces of legislation would have to be quickly reconciled before the end of this session after Thanksgiving.
Supporters are still negotiating with one senator expected to offer an amendment to the bill — Jon Tester, a Montana Democrat who is concerned the legislation will be burdensome on small farms. Senator Dianne Feinstein, Democrat of California, has said she will not offer an amendment to ban plastics chemical bisphenol-A from baby bottles and sippy cups. She issued a statement yesterday saying the chemical industry had blocked her monthlong efforts to build support for the amendment.
Tester’s amendment, which would exempt some smaller farms from the bill’s requirements, has gained support among grass-roots advocates of buying food produced locally. While the bill is designed to give the Food and Drug Administration greater authority over the nation’s food supply, supporters of the Tester amendment say it could bankrupt some small farms that don’t have the means to comply with new standards the bill would impose.
Those standards could include registering food safety plans with the FDA and documenting efforts to show food is not contaminated as it is produced.
Food safety advocates have objected to some of the exemptions, saying Tester’s concerns are overblown and the size of the farm is not as important as the safety of the food.
Obama issued a statement in support of the Senate food safety bill Tuesday, saying the legislation would address “longstanding challenges’’ of the FDA by helping producers prevent foodborne outbreaks and giving the government more tools to keep food safe.
Recent outbreaks such as cases of salmonella in eggs have exposed a lack of resources and authority at the FDA, which does not have the authority to order a recall and must negotiate recalls with the affected producers.