MARY CLARE JALONICK
The Associated Press
WASHINGTON (AP) -The House passed a far-reaching food safety bill Thursday in the wake of the recent outbreak of salmonella in peanuts that killed at least nine people.
The legislation would require more government inspections and oversight of food manufacturers and give the Food and Drug Administration new authority to order recalls. It also would require the FDA to develop a system for better tracing food-borne illnesses, and the government could impose new penalties on those who violate the law. Food companies would be required to create detailed food safety plans.
President Barack Obama praised the bill soon after it was passed, calling it "a major step forward in modernizing our food safety system."
The House passed the bill 283-142 a day after rejecting it. Farm-state members had argued that the bill would be too invasive on farms and had pushed colleagues to vote against it as it was considered under a special procedure that requires a two-thirds vote. It was rejected by a few votes.
After the bill failed, Democrats scrambled to put the legislation back on the House floor Thursday under a rule that required a simple majority to pass.
Supporters said the legislation would help the FDA change its focus from a reactive to a more preventive approach in keeping the nation's food safe.
"Americans are dying because the Food and Drug Administration doesn't have the authority to protect them," said Michigan Rep. John Dingell, the bill's sponsor and a long-serving Democrat who has been pushing for tougher standards for more than a decade.
The legislation gained new momentum in the wake of several highly publicized outbreaks, including salmonella in peanuts earlier this year that killed nine people, sickened hundreds of others and was linked to shoddy practices at a peanut company in Georgia. The outbreak led to one of the largest product recalls in U.S. history.
Other recent outbreaks include contaminated spinach in 2006 and salmonella in peppers last year. The government estimates that 76 million people each year are sickened by food-borne illness, hundreds of thousands are hospitalized and around 5,000 die.
Those outbreaks have exposed a lack of resources and authority at the FDA as the embattled agency has struggled to contain and trace them. In the peanut outbreak, FDA inspectors quickly focused on the small Georgia processing plant but had to invoke bioterror laws to get lab reports that ultimately showed the company shipped tainted peanuts. Meanwhile, the agency had no authority to order a food recall.
Connecticut Rep. Rosa DeLauro has said the bill is a solid first step but said she believes Congress needs to go even further and reorganize FDA to help it better focus on its "food" mission. She has introduced legislation that would divide the FDA in two, separating the agency's drug oversight and food safety duties.
The FDA regulates most foods, though as many as 15 federal agencies have a hand in food safety. The Agriculture Department inspects meats, poultry and some eggs.
The bill, which has support from the food industry as well as a wide range of consumer groups, would give the agency the authority to order recalls if a company fails to act on its own, and would increase the frequency of inspections to high-risk food processing facilities. It would charge food processors an annual $500 fee to help defray the cost of increased enforcement.
Sponsors tweaked the legislation in recent days to appease the farm-state members who objected to it. Last-minute changes included modifying the way a trace-back system would work, clarifying that some hard-to-trace products, such as grains, would not be tracked to individual farms. It also lessened paperwork for some farms and clarified that some smaller operations would not have to register with the FDA or pay fees.
Those changes appeased most farm-state Democrats, but many Republicans still voted against it, saying it would be invasive to farmers and not do enough to improve food safety. Oklahoma Rep. Frank Lucas, the top Republican on the House Agriculture Committee, led the charge against the legislation.
"The bill still goes too far in the direction of trying to produce food from a bureaucrat's chair in Washington D.C.," Lucas said.
A similar bill sponsored by Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., has not yet seen action in the Senate.