Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) has promised the family of a Nevada woman that the U.S. Senate will take up a food safety bill this fall.

Reid, who is a candidate for re-election to the Senate in 2010, made the pledge in a letter to the family of Linda Rivera, who continues to fight for her life in a Las Vegas hospital.

The woman is among the most seriously injured of 80 people in 31 states who were infected with the dangerous E. coli O157:H7 bacteria after eating Nestle Toll House raw cookie dough.

Her story was featured prominently in the Washington Post on Sept. 1st, which contrasted the severity of her condition with Congress’ pondering of food safety issues.

“I want you to know that the seriousness of Linda’s illness highlights the need for action to improve our food safety laws and inspection systems,” Reid writes the Rivera family.  “This fall, I plan to bring food safety legislation before the Senate so that we can strengthen our laws, better detect food borne pathogens, and better trace our food supply.  As I work on this legislation it will be with the goal of ensuring that more families do not suffer as you do now.”

The U.S. House of Representatives passed the Food Safety Enhancement Act of 2009 before it took its summer vacation.  As it passed the House, H.B. 2749 gives the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) more power to inspect and issue recalls.  It imposes fees on food-makers and will expand the reach of FDA to both domestic foods and imports.

H.B. 2749 is now in the U.S. Senate, assigned to the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee.  The HELP Committee is now taking up both H.B. 2749 and S. 501 introduced by Sen. Richard Durbin (D-IL).

Senior Democratic staff to the HELP Committee last month said with the focus on health care reform, it was unlikely the committee would get to food safety legislation this fall.  Durbin, who is Majority Whip, does not want to wait that long and from Reid’s letter, it appears the Majority Leader now agrees with him.

Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA) is the new HELP Committee chairman.  He says he wants to take up a “modified” version of Durbin’s bill.

Meat and poultry production continues to fall under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety & Inspection Service (FSIS).  Harkin, the former Senate Agriculture chairman, is unlikely to change that.  However, Durbin’s bill calls for fees to pay for stepped up inspections of FDA-regulated facilities.

FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg favors the fees for the new revenue stream that would be produced by the system.

The House bill also calls for a trace-back system, civil penalties for violating food safety laws, country-of-origin labeling requirements for certain products, and other regulations.  Durbin’s bill and the House bill would expand FDA’s power through increased inspections, beefed-up recall provisions and expansion of FDA access to records to determine whether firms are complying with food safety laws.

The woman to whom Reid promised to take up a food safety bill is one of ten Nestle victims who developed Hemolytic Uremic Syndrome (HUS), a life-threatening complication from E. coli O157:H7 poisoning.

The Washington Post reported that Rivera’s  “cascading problems started about seven days after she ate the dough when her kidneys shut down and she went into septic shock.

“The doctors had to remove part of her colon, which had become contaminated. Soon, her gallbladder was inflamed and hard to be excised. Shortly after, her liver stopped functioning. It unclear exactly what is causing her loss of speech, although the toxin produced by the E. coli O157:H7 bacteria can attack the brain.”

Her fight continues.

(U.S. government photo of Harry Reid)