The food industry has been rocked by a spate of foodborne illness outbreaks in recent years, with pathogens turning up in spinach, jalapeno peppers, and cookie dough, among others. But it was the salmonella outbreak in peanut products earlier this year that prompted this new bill which proposes the first restructuring of food safety law for 70 years.
The Food Safety Enhancement Act narrowly missed the required two-thirds of the vote on Wednesday, but reappeared in the House under a rule allowing it to pass with a simple majority. It passed with a vote of 283-142.
President Obama praised the bill, saying: “This action represents a major step forward in modernizing our food safety system and protecting Americans from foodborne illness.”
The bill has received strong and wide-reaching support from consumers and industry, and some changes in recent days helped to placate some of those who felt the bill would be too invasive for farmers. But some still think it gives the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) too much authority.
"The bill still goes too far in the direction of trying to produce food from a bureaucrat's chair in Washington D.C.," said Rep. Frank Lucas (R-Okla).
What it means for industry
At present, the FDA can only request companies to recall their products; the bill would give it the power to order recalls. It would also give the FDA authority to set science-based standards for food manufacture and handling and require manufacturers to show how they meet them, or face strong penalties.
Additionally, the bill mandates more frequent FDA inspections – once a year for high-risk facilities and once every three years for others – to be partly funded through $500 fees payable by each manufacturing or processing facility. Currently manufacturing sites are only inspected about once a decade.
Trade association for the produce industry United Fresh said in a statement that it is “largely supportive” of the bill. “United Fresh has supported congressional action on food safety and appreciates the opportunity to provide critical input to lawmakers in development of the bill,” it said.
The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) also said it welcomed the bill. CSPI food safety director Caroline Smith DeWaal said: “This bill gives the FDA more authority and real enforcement teeth to help prevent more outbreaks, illnesses, and deaths.”
However, the bill does not aim to consolidate the splintered food safety system, which is split between federal authorities as well as state and local health departments. The FDA is responsible for about 80 percent of US food supply.
The bill is expected to go before the Senate in the fall, where it still needs to be passed before it can become law.
Currently a quarter of Americans are sickened by foodborne illness each year, and 5,000 die, according to government figures.