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House Advances Food Safety Bill

Food safety legislation inched forward Wednesday as the House passed the Senate version of the bill as part of a larger resolution to fund the federal government for the next several months.

The bill, which passed the House 212-206 with 35 Democrats joining Republicans to vote “no,” must now be re-approved by the Senate.  Though the upper chamber approved virtually the same measure last week, the bill was voided because it inadvertently contained a fee provision that is technically unconstitutional–Article 1 says revenue-raising provisions must originate in the House.

The Senate is expected to vote on the food safety bill and continuing resolution in the next few days.

The FDA Food Safety Modernization Act, which gives the U.S. Food and Drug Administration expanded oversight over approximately 80 percent the food supply–not including USDA-regulated meat and poultry–would be the first major update of food safety laws in over seven decades.

The bill, estimated to cost $1.4 billion over the next five years, gives the FDA mandatory recall authority, requires that food facilities implement food safety plans, and stipulates that foreign facilities importing food to the U.S. must meet the same standards.

In July 2009, the House passed a more sweeping version of the bill, which also contained broader FDA authority for records access, more frequent inspections of high risk facilities, and a flat food facility fee to supplement costs, but with time running short in the 111th Congress, House leadership decided to take up the Senate version to expedite the process and get the bill to the president’s desk before the end of the year.

During debate on the House floor Wednesday, several Democrats said they preferred their stronger version, but conceded that the Senate bill was still a major step towards improving an outdated federal food safety system.

“Sometimes you have to accept a change you may not favor,” said Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA), chair of the powerful House Energy and Commerce Committee.  ”But, to go without this bill would be irresponsible.”

Waxman also pointed out that his committee unanimously approved the House food safety bill.

But the committee’s Ranking Member, Joe Barton (R-TX), voted against the bill and slammed Democrats for attaching the measure to a large spending bill and for not taking the time to compromises on the differences between the House and Senate versions.

“We could have a conference–we could have a bipartisan, bicameral bill,” said Barton, explaining that there would be another week or two before Congress adjourns.  ”I regretfully oppose this … this is not the bill that came out of the House.”

Rep. John Dingell (D-MI), who has served as chairman of the committee in past Congresses, blamed the Senate–which took well over a year to follow the House’s action on the bill–for the short time frame.

“It’s the Senate that doddled around and doddled around, as they always do,” said the 84-year-old, longest-serving member in the House.  ”I agree we should be going to conference, but regrettably we are running out of time.”

Rep. Pete Sessions (R-TX) argued that the bill was just an example of how Democrats hadn’t listened to the electorate in November.

“Americans expect something better and different,” said Sessions, adding that he was opposed to reckless fiscal politics, “taxing, spending, and over-regulating.”  Every Republican in the House voted “no,” though in 2009 54 had voted for the measure. 

Rep. James McGovern (D-MA) fired back: “I’m baffled by the controversy. Anyone who’s been watching remembers recall after recall after recall.”

The controversial Tester-Hagan amendment, a provision added to the Senate bill to exempt small farms and producers under certain conditions, is part of the legislation going back to the Senate for consideration. It appears that the small farm exemptions will be a part of the legislation if it becomes law this year. 

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