Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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November 30, 2010

SENATE PASSES FOOD-SAFETY BILL.... The House easily passed an important overhaul of the nation's food safety safeguards over a year ago, before moving to the Senate, where it had six principal co-sponsors -- three Democrats and three Republicans. It appeared to be a no-brainer, especially after the nation saw at least 1,300 salmonella-related illnesses spanning 22 states over the summer.

But the Senate is the Senate, and a handful of far-right Republicans blocked action on the bill for months. Today, their efforts came to an end -- the good guys won one for a change.

The Senate on Tuesday passed a sweeping overhaul of the nation's food-safety system, after recalls of tainted eggs, peanut butter and spinach 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.

The legislation isn't perfect, and doesn't go as far as it should, but the bill does grant the FDA new powers to "recall tainted foods, increase inspections, demand accountability from food companies and oversee farming."

Erik Olson, deputy director of the Pew Health Group, declared, "This is an historic moment. 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."

For those of us who eat food, that's good news.

There is, however, one additional legislative problem: the House and Senate passed slightly different versions, and there's no time for a conference committee in the lame-duck session. Look for the House, which passed the superior version, to just swallow hard and approve the Senate bill as-is, sending it to the White House for the president's signature.

For all the Senate version's flaws, it's a big, overdue step in the right direction.

Part of the problem is the growing industrialization and globalization of the nation's food supply. Nearly a fifth of the nation's food supply and as much as three-quarters of its seafood are imported, but the F.D.A. inspects less than one pound in a million of such imported foods. The bill gives the F.D.A. more control over food imports, including increased inspection of foreign processing plants and the ability to set standards for how fruits and vegetables are grown abroad.

And as food suppliers grow in size, problems at one facility can sicken thousands all over the country. The Peanut Corporation of America's contaminated paste was included in scores of cookies and snacks made by big and small companies. The legislation would raise standards at such plants by demanding that food companies write plans to manufacture foods safely and conduct routine tests to ensure that the plans are adequate.

The bill would give the F.D.A. the power to demand food recalls.... The legislation greatly increases the number of inspections the F.D.A. must conduct of food processing plants, with an emphasis on foods that are considered most high risk -- although figuring out which ones are riskiest is an uncertain science.

Steve Benen 11:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (15)

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And yet, there were 25 Nay votes.

And that's before the new Congress gets sworn in.

Posted by: Z. Mulls on November 30, 2010 at 11:10 AM | PERMALINK

Last night, on the Senate floor, Senator Coburn ranted that the "the marketplace" was the proper venue for dealing with food safety.

Presumably that also holds true for pharmaceuticals, mortgages, and Ford Pintos. . .

Posted by: DAY on November 30, 2010 at 11:16 AM | PERMALINK

Like all laws setting out a regulatory framework, this one depends on whether the regulators are competent, proactive and well-funded. Look for Coburn et al to weaken the funding over the next couple of years, and look for the next Republican president to put food industry executives (and lobbyists, and executive wannabes) in key positions at the FDA.

Posted by: Basilisc on November 30, 2010 at 11:20 AM | PERMALINK

Am I cynical? Yeah.

Posted by: Basilisc on November 30, 2010 at 11:21 AM | PERMALINK

"For those of us who eat food, that's good news."

You funny. ;-)

Posted by: puravida on November 30, 2010 at 11:27 AM | PERMALINK

For anyone who doubts the entire GOP has the destruction of Obama as their only goal, this bill should be an eye opener. Senate GOP has held this bill up for months....a Safe Food Act, for Christsakes, just to make it tough on Obama. And these are the good GOPers....wait til the next bunch is sworn in.

Posted by: T2 on November 30, 2010 at 11:50 AM | PERMALINK

The food safety laws will be truly and effectively strengthened -- and fully funded and aggressively implemented and enforced -- when, but only when, a child of a Senator, Governor, or cabinet-level executive dies from tainted food*.
I'm tempted to add that it would have to be a Publican's offspring, too.
And, though this is clearly apparent enough to all the regulars here, for the benefit of recent arrivals, visitors, etc, it might be useful in such posts to put at least a part-sentence in reminding that the party and the pols (and the real powers behind them) that so strongly fight against "intrusive, wasteful, job-killing, nanny-state gummint regulations" such as this are also fighting tooth and nail to limit both access to the courts and the size of court- or jury-ordered financial penalties and judgments for damages, esp pain-and-suffering.
They literally want the corporations free to kill citizens with neither restraint nor responsibility attached.

*Obvious but necessary qualifier: not that I'm wishing for anything like that to happen, of course.

Posted by: smartalek on November 30, 2010 at 11:55 AM | PERMALINK

I was watching some of the voting on C-Span last night, until I got bored.

Does anyone know if the Ben Nelson (DINO - Nebraska) amendment passed or failed? His amendment was intended to start gutting the Health Care bill by repealing one of its provisions on 1099 reporting requirements.

Posted by: SadOldVet on November 30, 2010 at 12:14 PM | PERMALINK

Another item I came across last night was that James Demented (Rethug - S.C.) has introduced legislation (REINS Act) that would require all 'federal regulations' be submitted for approval by both houses of Congress before they could take effect!

Great legislation if your goal is to prevent consumers from being protected from corporate greed!

Posted by: SadOldVet on November 30, 2010 at 12:20 PM | PERMALINK

Does anyone know if the Tester amendment passed, exempting small and usually organic farms?

Posted by: jjm on November 30, 2010 at 1:02 PM | PERMALINK

The good guys need guns.

Posted by: Angered Trollop on November 30, 2010 at 2:01 PM | PERMALINK

Tester amendment passed! Good news for small farms and organics.

Posted by: jjm on November 30, 2010 at 2:17 PM | PERMALINK

Regrettably it appears that the era of FDA breaking down doors of people who sell raw milk and terrorizing small farm producers has only just begun. All us with a handful of chikens and a diary goat or two will learn to fear the feds. I dread the consequences from this legislation.

Posted by: DanZ on November 30, 2010 at 6:32 PM | PERMALINK

@smartalek - you are absolutely right and to that I would add that despite their talk about free market solutions in which consumers stop doing business with any company that sells faulty products (which of course does nothing to help the people that have already been hurt), Republicans generally oppose the government tracking and publishing lists of companies that have bad product safety records.

@DanZ - nice try troll, but epic fail. You could at least acknowledge the post immediately above yours by jjm which pre-emptively demolished your right-wing talking point.

Posted by: tanstaafl on November 30, 2010 at 6:51 PM | PERMALINK

Looks like just another power grab by the federal government to control something that the market can do. 1300 cases of salmonella amounts to a catastrophic 0.00037% rate. Why not just go ahead and create another two federal agencies to control lightning strikes and bee stings.
What will this new bill do for "farmer's markets"? I suspect nothing good.

Posted by: Texas Glenn on December 1, 2010 at 9:30 AM | PERMALINK
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