WASHINGTON - The House approved the first major changes to food safety laws in 70 years yesterday, giving sweeping new authority to the Food and Drug Administration to regulate the way food is grown, harvested, and processed.
The action follows a wave of foodborne illnesses over the last two years, involving products as varied as spinach and cookie dough, which has shaken consumer confidence and made the issue a priority for congressional leaders and the White House. Food illnesses sicken one in four Americans and kill 5,000 each year, according to government statistics. Tainted food has cost the food industry billions of dollars in recalls, lost sales, and legal costs.
"Americans are dying because the Food and Drug Administration does not have authority to protect them, and American producers and agriculture are being hurt," said Rep. John D. Dingell (D., Mich.), the bill's author, who has been pushing food safety reform for more than 20 years. "This will fundamentally change the way in which we ensure the safety of our food supply."
The measure (H.R. 2749) passed, 283-142. The Senate is expected to take up its version after the August recess. President Obama, who has voiced concerns about the safety of peanut butter consumed by his 8-year-old daughter, endorsed the House bill Wednesday.
The House bill affects every aspect of the U.S. food system, from farmers to manufacturers to importers. It places significant new responsibilities on farmers and food processors to prevent contamination before it occurs - a departure from the country's reactive tradition that has relied on government inspectors to catch tainted food after the fact.
The 159-page legislation was backed by a raft of consumer groups and trade associations but faced opposition from some farm interests and their House Republican allies, who contended that it gives too much authority to the FDA and will lead to higher costs and burdensome paperwork without necessarily making food safer.
"The federal government will tell our farmers and ranchers how to do something they've been doing since the dawn of mankind," said Rep. Frank Lucas (R., Okla.). "It goes too far in the direction of trying to produce food from a bureaucrat's chair in Washington, D.C."
The legislation requires food producers and importers to pay an annual $500 registration fee, which would help pay for stepped-up FDA inspections, enforcement, and related activities such as food safety research. An estimated 360,000 facilities in the United States and abroad would be subject to the fees. The Congressional Budget Office reported that the fees would not cover the cost of the new system, leaving the FDA to incur a net cost of $2.2 billion over five years.
If passed into law, the bill would be the first major overhaul of food laws since 1938.
Representatives from the Philadelphia area who voted for the food safety bill were Robert E. Andrews (D., N.J.), Robert A. Brady (D., Pa.), Michael N. Castle (R., Del.), Charles W. Dent (R., Pa.), Chaka Fattah (D., Pa.), Jim Gerlach (R., Pa.), Tim Holden (D., Pa.), Frank A. LoBiondo (R., N.J.), Patrick Murphy (D., Pa.), Allyson Y. Schwartz (D., Pa.), Joe Sestak (D., Pa.), and Christopher H. Smith (R., N.J.).
Voting against the
bill was Joseph R. Pitts (R., Pa.).
Not voting: John Adler (D., N.J.).