The FDA Food Safety Modernization Act, a bill that would greatly increase the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s authority and mandate over the food system, was unanimously voted out of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee yesterday, nine months after Dick Durbin (D-IL) introduced the measure. 

Groups in support of the legislation hailed the committee’s action and continued to press the Senate to vote on the bill before the end of the year.

“This is another milestone on the path to fixing our badly-broken system for food safety,” said Jean Halloran, director of food policy initiatives at Consumers Union, the non-profit publisher of Consumer Reports. “The Senate bill was passed unanimously by committee members on both sides of the political aisle. The bipartisan support for this bill is strong, and momentum is building.”

“I’m feeling extremely positive that ultimately this ended up being a bipartisan issue, which is what it should be,” said Donna Rosenbaum, executive director of Safe Tables Our Priority (S.T.O.P.). 

“We’re going into the holiday season with great hopes that this is moving along and will be enacted as soon as possible,” added Rosenbaum.

Though the version of the legislation that cleared the HELP committee enjoyed bipartisan support yesterday, there still remain issues to be resolved on the floor and eventually in conference committee. The House version of FDA food safety reform contains some differences–most notably the House bill would impose fees on food facilities to help fund the FDA’s food safety inspection efforts, the Senate version does not.

Small and sustainable agriculture groups also still have concerns about the legislation’s potential impact on farms, though advocates were pleased with progress made in the markup session.

The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) organized small and mid-sized farmers to press for changes to the bill over the past several days, and their efforts proved fruitful. NSAC was pleased with the new version of the legislation–which was Senator Tom Harkin’s (D-IA) substitute amendment.  Harkin is a longtime proponent of the agriculture community.

NSAC believes the changes made to the bill respond to concerns over farm scale, crop diversity, conservation and organic conflicts and are “a step in the right direction” but the group still has major concerns.

NSAC wants the FDA to be more explicit about how much new regulations would impact farmers. “The Food and Drug Administration believes that tens of thousands of farms are affected by the bill’s provisions,” said Fred Hoefner, policy director for NSAC. “We have good reason to believe it is hundreds of thousands with more to come as farmers respond to consumer demand for high quality, value-added local and regional food.”

“It behooves the Senate to get an answer to this very basic question before finishing the legislative process,” said Hoefner.

NSAC is also continuing to press for the Senate to add the Growing Safe Food Act (S.2758) to the food safety bill to help alleviate the impact of food safety compliance on small and mid-sized farmers.  S. 2758, recently introduced by Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), would provide funding and educational programs to help educate and train farmers and food processors, “We will continue to push for its inclusion as the bill moves to the Senate floor,” said Hoefner.