The long and winding road of food safety legislation has finally reached the finish line. The House cleared the bill Tuesday on a 215-144 vote, concurring with a Senate amendment to the bill (HR 2751), which will authorize a big overhaul of food safety laws.
The law will impact the 80% of the food supply that is regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), but does not apply to most meat and poultry products, which are regulated by USDA. A push will be made in the new Congress for a rewrite of USDA regulations.
The bill strengthens the FDA's regulatory power and allow the agency to order mandatory recalls, and gives FDA the ability to set nationwide standards for growing and harvesting produce, with the goal of reducing the chances of contamination in the fields.
Food manufacturers in time will be required to examine their processing systems to identify possible ways that food products can become contaminated and to develop detailed plans to keep that from happening. Companies must share those plans with the FDA, and provide the agency with records, including product test results, showing how effectively they carry them out. Those provisions do not go into effect for as long as 18 months. FDA will use that time to write rules it needs to carry out the new law.
FDA will be required to conduct more frequent inspections in the U.S. and abroad. Low-risk plants in this country must be inspected within seven years after the bill becomes law. After that, they must be inspected once every five years. Regulators are given up to five years to visit high-risk facilities. After that, high-risk plants must be inspected every three years.
Funding to implement and enforce the new law will be an issue next year, as Republicans will gain control of the House next year and some of its members have pledged to cut spending on many domestic programs.
The law includes exemptions for small food processors and farmers, who feared it would be too costly and burdensome. The exemptions were crucial to pushing the bill through the Senate, although critics said the changes weakened the law, since some small producers have been linked to serious outbreaks of illness.
Those exemptions reduced GOP support in the House, as only 10 Republicans joined Democrats in voting for the bill. Rep. Frank Lukas (R-Okla.), incoming chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, criticized the plan as differing from the original House legislation since it excluded certain small producers from certain food safety requirements in the bill. That exclusion came via an amendment from Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) that exempts family farmers and food producers from the new federal regulations if they sell the majority of their food directly to consumers within their own state or within a 275-mile radius of where it was produced.
From the administration, USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack welcomed the bill's passage. "The Food Safety bill will provide the Federal Government with improved tools to prevent foodborne illness and address challenges in the food safety system by promoting a prevention-oriented approach. I applaud leaders in Congress for passing this important bill and look forward to President Obama signing this legislation. Protecting consumers from harm is a fundamental function of government and with passage of this landmark food safety legislation USDA remains committed to keeping food safety a top priority."