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House Approves New Food-Safety Laws

By William Neuman | The New York Times

In a major step toward an overhaul of the nation’s food safety system, the House of Representatives passed legislation on Thursday to require more frequent inspections of processing plants and give the government the authority to order the recall of tainted foods.

“No legislation like this has moved forward this far in decades to overhaul the food safety laws,” said Erik D. Olson, director of food and consumer product safety issues at the Pew Charitable Trusts. “It’s a pretty historic moment.”

House passage sets the stage for the Senate to take up the issue, though probably not until the fall. The Obama administration has voiced strong support for a comprehensive food safety revamping.

The bill passed the House on a vote of 283 to 142. Democratic support was overwhelming, but Republicans were split, with 54 voting in favor and 122 against. Much of the opposition centered on lesser provisions that critics said would add burdensome bureaucracy for farmers.

The legislation seeks to remedy problems in the food safety system that have been discussed for decades. Its chief sponsor, Representative John D. Dingell, Democrat of Michigan, said it would “fundamentally change the way in which we ensure the safety of our food supply.”

The measure would require the Food and Drug Administration to conduct inspections every 6 to 12 months at food processing plants that it deems high-risk. These could include plants that have experienced food safety problems in the past or that handle products that spoil easily, like seafood.

Lower-risk processing plants would be inspected at least once every three years, and warehouses for packaged foods at least once every five. Backers of the legislation have complained that at present, some facilities go a decade or longer between F.D.A. inspections.

To help finance the inspections, the bill would impose a yearly fee of $500 to be paid by food processing plants, with a $175,000 cap for large companies with multiple plants. The Congressional Budget Office has estimated that the fee would generate $1.4 billion over the next five years, covering about 40 percent of the F.D.A.’s costs in carrying out the expanded inspections and other requirements in the bill.

The measure would also give the agency the power to order recalls of tainted food. Under its current authority, it can only ask companies to recall their food products.

Among the bill’s other provisions are heightened inspection requirements on imported foods, a mandate that records of processing plants be made available to inspectors and investigators, and a requirement that processing plants develop elaborate safety plans meant to head off problems before they arise.

In addition, the bill would direct the F.D.A. to create a system that would better trace food products and ingredients, as a way of quickly getting to the source of future outbreaks of food-borne illness.

“Over all, the legislation will raise the bar for the entire food industry and provide powerful disincentives” to bad actors, said Scott Faber, vice president of the Grocery Manufacturers Association, a trade group representing food processors, which supported the bill.

The legislation applies only to the F.D.A. and so would not cover meat or poultry products, which are overseen by the Department of Agriculture and have long been regulated more tightly than other foods. Advocates said the F.D.A. regulated about 80 percent of the food Americans eat.

Carol L. Tucker-Foreman, a food safety advocate at the Consumer Federation of America, said the House vote was “a major step forward.”

“The F.D.A. has no specific authority right now, or responsibility, to prevent food-borne illness,” Ms. Tucker-Foreman said. “This legislation tells them to prevent food-borne illness, and it sets up the elements that are necessary to do that.”


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