An outbreak of salmonella poisoning that has sickened hundreds of people who ate bad eggs should prompt the Senate to stop sitting on legislation to give the Food and Drug Administration more clout.
But instead of its watered-down version that has been collecting dust, the Senate should adopt a House bill passed a year ago.
More than 1,300 recent salmonella cases have been linked to contaminated eggs.
FDA officials say those illnesses, and the subsequent voluntary recall of a half-billion eggs, might have been avoided if it had the power to inspect agribusinesses before an outbreak and to order product recalls when necessary.
The FDA needs more authority to regulate the massive agribusinesses that dominate the U.S. food market. The current wave of salmonella (which weakens immune systems and can be life-threatening to babies and the elderly) has been traced to two Iowa egg farms that share the same supplier of chickens.
The House bill would set up a system in which the frequency of FDA inspections would be based on the level of risk of contamination at a facility. High-risk operations would be inspected every six months to a year; medium-risk, every one to three years; low-risk, every five years.
The weaker bill written in the Senate would call for higher-risk facilities to be inspected within seven years of the bill's enactment, and every three years after that, with low-risk facilities being inspected anywhere from seven to 17 years after enactment, and then every seven years.
Why are the senators suggesting a more laid-back approach to food safety? It's the cost, they say. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that the Senate legislation would add $1.4 billion to federal spending over a five-year period, compared to $3.5 billion for the House bill.
Senate Republicans say they are taking a stand against deficit spending, but they ignore a remedy. The House bill also includes a schedule of inspection fees that would recoup enough to make its cost only slightly higher than the Senate measure.
The agribusinesses don't want inspection fees imposed. But the current salmonella outbreak is just the latest evidence that they need much greater scrutiny. Then, too, the price of inspections must be weighed against the $152 billion a year that food-borne illnesses cost this country in health expenses and lost productivity. Not to mention the 5,000 deaths.
There are other differences in the House and Senate bills that need to be hashed out, including the proper definition of a high-risk facility or product. But the cost of inspections should not become a ruse for politically partisan filibuster threats that could jeopardize public health.
Some new FDA rules requiring more testing for salmonella went into effect in July, but by then the current outbreak had begun.
"We need additional resources, we need additional authority, we need greater ability to trace back products to their sources so that we can identify how contamination occurred and what products are at risk," said FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg.
The Senate has waited long enough. It needs to reconcile its bill with the House version and act swiftly to protect Americans from food that makes them sick.