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Senate passes food safety reform bill

Bill would empower FDA to order recalls, increase inspections of food facilities

National Restaurant Association executives praised the U.S. Senate’s passage of a sweeping food-safety enhancement law, but said they were disappointed the measure did not include a provision to eliminate a paperwork “burden” on businesses passed earlier this year as part of the health care reform law.

The Food and Drug Administration Food Safety Modernization Act, or S. 510, which passed on Tuesday by a bipartisan vote of 73 to 25, would empower the Food and Drug Administration to order recalls of tainted foods, increase inspections of domestic and foreign food facilities, and require the FDA to draft new rules for the growers and processors of higher-risk fruits and vegetables.

The measure also calls for the creation of stricter food-safety standards for imported foods and better coordination in the surveillance of foodborne illness by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention and state health departments.

The measure now must be reconciled with a version passed in the House last year, win approval from the full chamber in its modified form and be signed by President Obama.

Those potential hurdles have left some Capitol Hill observers wondering if the bill might not still die, including foodborne illness litigator William Marler of Seattle’s Marler Clark law firm, who blogged today, “I am pleased that [the bill] has passed the Senate, but I wonder how it will be able to get through the House and to the President’s desk before year’s end.”

Foodservice association officials, meanwhile, said they are pleased with the measure’s passage in the Senate.

"The National Restaurant Association applauds Senate passage of S. 510” and “we believe the important enhancements to the food safety system are all measures that ensure food entering the supply chain is safe,” said Scott DeFife, the NRA’s executive vice president of policy and government affairs. “We encourage the House of Representatives to take quick action to pass the bill before the end of the year.”

DeFife said the restaurant industry “understands the critical importance of a first-class food safety system” and has supported improvements to that system that are not “burdening” on small businesses.

“We believe this legislation represents a fair balance of these needs, and that its comprehensive reforms and emphasis on prevention will improve the safety of the food purchased by restaurant operators,” DeFife said.

Jack Whipple, president of the National Council of Chain Restaurants, said: “Upgrading and modernizing the nation’s food safety system has long been a top priority for the chain restaurant industry. We commend the Senate for today’s passage of this important legislation and we urge the House to move quickly to take up the Senate-passed bill before concluding the current session of Congress.”

A series of foodborne illness outbreaks in recent years tied to such products as eggs, peanuts, peppers and spinach led to widespread support for food safety reform.

The Senate’s passage of the bill was hailed as a step forward by a number of business, public health and consumer groups, including the National Fisheries Institute, Distilled Spirits Council, National Association of County and City Health Officials and Centers for Science in the Public Interest.

However several produce and farming organizations are opposed to the so-called “Tester/Hagen Amendment” included in the measure, which exempts small farms or farms that sell a large percentage of their goods directly to consumers, restaurants or retailers within a certain number of miles from their fields. Among the proponents of those exemptions are the Produce Marketing Association, United Fresh Produce Association, Western Growers and numerous crop-specific associations.

Meanwhile, the NRA said it “regretted” that a proposed amendment, which would have repealed a requirement that businesses fill out a 1099 tax form for every non-credit-card business expense beyond $600, was not approved. That requirement, which both the NRA and other business groups have characterized as an onerous paperwork burden on small businesses, was included as a revenue raiser in the federal Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act passed earlier this year by Congress.

“We urge Congress to continue to work towards repealing these requirements, as it is clear that repeal has bipartisan support and it seems the only roadblock is that lawmakers cannot agree on how best to pay for it,” DeFife said.

Contact Alan J. Liddle at [email protected].

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