The Senate on Tuesday passed a bill giving federal regulators broad new powers over food safety. This marks the first big response in Congress to contamination scares in recent years.
The measure, which cleared the Senate on a 73-25 vote, would give the Food and Drug Administration the power to order food recalls, which are currently voluntary. It would also give the FDA more authority to track fruit and vegetable shipments, and would mandate that producers write safety plans.
Lawmakers said they expected the House to pass the Senate version of the bill and send it to President Barack Obama for his signature, but the tight schedule of Congress's lame-duck session means final passage isn't a sure thing.
Proponents say the bill would bring faster responses to contamination outbreaks and mean fewer safety blowups.
"The new law requires a fundamental shift in the [FDA's] food-safety program, emphasizing prevention instead of waiting until people become sick or die," said Chris Waldrop, director of the Consumer Federation of America.
The bill enjoys backing from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and major business groups representing food producers and grocery stores.
Small farms held up the legislation for months. They warned of higher prices as businesses comply with the new rules, and said consumers might lose access to some local produce if smaller farmers couldn't keep up.
"It will ultimately be up to federal bureaucrats whether or not your home garden will be regulated if you sell any fruits or vegetables at your local farmers' market," said antitax group Freedom Works.
An amendment was added this week exempting small farms and food processors with annual sales under $500,000 from the new FDA regulations if they sell their goods directly to consumers or restaurants no more than 275 miles away. But the FDA could remove the exemption in emergency cases.
Consumers and the industry, as well as restaurants, have been pummeled by recalls in recent years involving contaminated food such as packaged spinach, tomatoes, alfalfa sprouts, peanut butter, pistachios and eggs.
In 2008, a salmonella outbreak in the Southwest left authorities confused for weeks. At first they thought tomatoes were the cause, which led national burger chains to pull them. Federal officials later said they thought the problem might be jalapeños instead, which caused some restaurants to stop serving fresh salsa.
The Grocery Manufacturers Association, which represents companies such as Del Monte Foods Co., said the new safety standards would reduce the risk of major food-borne illnesses such as salmonella and E. coli. A spinach recall in 2006 involving E. coli found at one California grower scared consumers and retailers nationally, and even today "sales have not fully recovered," said Scott Faber, an association vice president. "One actor can impact the sales of an entire category," he said.
The bill doesn't address meat safety, which is the responsibility of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The bill drew some Republican support in the Senate vote, a rare case of bipartisan backing for a major bill amid sharp partisan divides in Congress. All 25 senators voting no were Republicans.