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U.S. Food-Safety Laws Overhauled

WEDNESDAY, Dec. 22 (HealthDay News) -- President Barack Obama is expected to sign, perhaps as early as Wednesday, new legislation that gives the U.S. Food and Drug Administration unprecedented powers to keep the nation's food supply safe.

The Food Safety Modernization Act, passed by the House of Representatives Tuesday in a 215-144 vote, represents the first significant strengthening of the nation's food safety laws since the 1930s and follows a string of outbreaks of food-borne illnesses stemming from tainted eggs, peanuts, spinach and other leafy greens.

Obama has said he would sign the bill, previously approved by the Senate, into law.

Food-safety advocates hailed the bipartisan move.

"This is a big victory for consumers that finally brings food-safety laws into the 21st century," Jean Halloran, director of food policy initiatives at Consumers Union, said Wednesday in a news release. "This win is a powerful testament to the people across the country who came to Washington to tell their lawmakers how contaminated food had killed their loved ones or left them horribly sick. This win is for them and all Americans."

Shelley A. Hearne, managing director of the Pew Health Group, applauded Congress "for sending a message that Americans should be able to trust that the food they eat and feed their families is safe."

The historic overhaul gives the FDA authority to protect the food supply, rather than simply react to breakdowns in the supply chain, as the agency has done in the past. It will affect all whole and processed foods, with the exception of meat, chicken and eggs, according to the Associated Press.

Under the auspices of the $1.4 billion bill, the government will be able to inspect processing plants, order recalls and set stricter standards for imported foods. Larger farms and food manufacturers will have to prepare detailed food-safety plans and tell the FDA how they will be implemented at different stages of production.

The bill exempts small farmers and food processors, and growers who sell directly to the public at farm stands, because of concerns that smaller food suppliers can't afford the testing and record-keeping that the bill requires.

Commenting on passage of the bill, Patty Lovera, assistant director for Food & Water Watch, said, "We look at it as an important first step."

Noting that implementation of important provisions will happen over the next several years and require increased funding for the FDA, Lovera said, "That's a whole other set of work we have to do."

As for the bill's effect on food safety, Lovera said that remains to be seen. "But it could have a significant impact," she said. "It's going to take a while to kick in, but it is important and overdue."

Other highlights of the bill:

  • The FDA must gradually implement more frequent inspections in the United States and overseas. Eventually, high-risk facilities will be inspected every three years.
  • The FDA will be able to order -- rather than simply request -- food recalls when it is evident that contaminated food poses a health hazard.
  • The law enables the agency to set national standards for growing and harvesting produce.

"This law makes everyone responsible and accountable at each step in today's global food supply chain," FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg said Tuesday.

One in six Americans gets sick from tainted food every year, and about 3,000 die from those illnesses, according to estimates from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

More information

For more on food safety, visit the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

SOURCES: Patty Lovera, assistant director of Food and Water Watch, Washington, D.C.; Dec. 23, 2010, news release, Consumers Union; Associated Press

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