Food safety legislation a victory for Durbin, bipartisanship

By:  Bill Lambrecht
St. Louis Post-Dispatch

WASHINGTON -- The Senate this morning passed long-debated legislation that for the first time would give the Food and Drug Administration authority to recall contaminated food.

The 73-25 vote for the so-called FDA Food Safety Modernization Act was hailed as the first significant revision of laws relating to food in 70 years and marked a rare example of Democrats and Republicans working together in Washington.

The House already has passed its version of food safety legislation with some key differences, notably fees on food producers to help finance more inspections.

The Senate version did not impose those fees as part of an effort to win wider support. With little time left on the congressional calendar, senators will try to persuade the House in coming days to accept its version.

The legislation addresses what is generally regarded as a significant need: According to the Centers for Disease Control, 76 million Americans are hit with preventable foodborne illness every year, and 5,000 die.

The legislation expands FDA access to manufacturers' records, which had been a point of contention.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce ended up endorsing the legislation despite concerns over the delegation of new power to the FDA.

The legislation has many provisions aimed at making imported food safer, including more inspections and new methods to track products regarded as high-risk, such as seafood.

Despite significant increases in food imports in recent years, the FDA has typically inspected just 1 percent of products arriving at American borders.

The legislation is a victory for Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., who has worked on food safety matters since he was a House member. In the Senate, he co-sponsored the bill with Sen. Judd Gregg, a New Hampshire Republican who is retiring after this year.

Durbin this morning thanked Judd and other Republicans who helped him round up support for the final push.

Durbin said after it passed that the legislation could have a dramatic impact on the way the FDA operates, "providing it with more resources for inspection, mandatory recall authority and the technology to trace an outbreak back to its source."