Ending a dramatic months-long legislative limbo, the House approved major food safety legislation 215-144 Tuesday.  The FDA Food Safety Modernization Act, the first significant reform since 1938 of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s oversight of the food supply, is expected to be signed by President Obama before Christmas.

The bill survived a near-fatal constitutional snafu, filibuster threats, fierce debate over controversial amendments, and managed to gain ground amidst a jam-packed legislative agenda in one of the most productive Congresses in recent history. In the last 18 months, food safety legislation cleared the Senate twice and the House three times.

The law will give FDA expanded authority over approximately 80 percent of the food supply–not including USDA-regulated meat and poultry products–by giving the agency mandatory recall powers and expanded access to records.  It also requires growers and food facilities to implement food safety plans and stipulates that foreign facilities importing food to the U.S. must meet the same standards.

Public health experts believe that the regulatory shift–from a reaction-based system to a prevention-based system–will reduce foodborne illnesses in the U.S.

“Passage of this legislation has been critical to providing the FDA with the tools and authorities necessary to better protect consumers from foodborne illness,” said Chris Waldrop, director the Food Policy Institute at the Consumer Federation of America. “Importantly, this bill requires a fundamental shift in the FDA’s food safety program from reacting to illnesses and deaths to preventing them in the first place.”

Last week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released the new estimate on the annual public health burden of contaminated food: 48 million illnesses, 128,000 hospitalizations, and 3,000 deaths.

Debate on the floor of the House Tuesday focused largely on disagreements over the process and a controversial provision, added by Sen. Jon Tester (D-MT), allowing for small, local farmers and food producers to be exempt from new requirements.

Though Rep. Joseph Pitts (R-PA) supported the stronger food safety bill the House passed more than 16 months ago, 283-142, he spoke out against the bill on the House floor Tuesday. “I intend to vote against this bill because it represents such a gross departure from reasonable legislating,” said Pitts, citing the lack of a conference to compromise the House and Senate versions of the measure.

“Instead of just taking up the Senate bill we should have held the conference. We’ve been told we couldn’t do that because there wasn’t enough time. Well, instead of naming post offices we should have rolled up our sleeves and gotten to work on negotiating,” added Pitts. “Well, three weeks, and many post offices later, the Majority says we have to take it or leave it.”

Pitts, and several of his Republican colleagues in the House, were also vocal opponents of the Tester amendment, which would exempt farmers and food producers averaging less than $500,000 in sales who sell most of their food directly to consumers, restaurants, and retailers (and not third party distributors) within the state or within 275 miles or within state lines.  The exemption aims to lessen the regulatory impact on small business–many of which are part of the local food movement–that may have difficulty absorbing the costs of complying with new federal regulations and should be left under the purview of state and local regulatory agencies.
Rep. Frank Lucas (R-OK), incoming chair of the House Agriculture Committee, criticized Democratic leadership for not allowing the legislation to go through the Agriculture Committee (the Energy and Commerce Committee has jurisdiction over the FDA, but the law will impact farms) and railed against the small farm exemptions.

“With the inclusion of the so-called Tester amendment some argue [the bill] is a step backwards, my concerns are not limited to the unforgivable process, there are serious policy concerns as well,” said Lucas.

Sen. Tester firmly defended his amendment in a statement Tuesday.   “Common sense won over tired old political excuses today,” said Tester.  “The members of the House who voted for safer food also voted to protect

the jobs and livelihoods of countless family farmers and food producers

in Montana and across rural America.  After unanimous passage of this

bill in the Senate, I’m proud to say this is a bipartisan victory.  I

look forward to this bill becoming law.”

Key House Democrats who championed the legislation, including Reps. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT), John Dingell (D-MI), Henry Waxman (D-CA), Bart Stupak (D-MI) and Frank Pallone (D-NJ), all praised the bill as a critical step forward for protecting both public health and consumer confidence.

“The bill before us serves a basic and necessary and admirable purpose,” said Dingell.  “It is going to have the purpose of seeing to it that the American consumer can again have confidence in the safety of the food supply.”

Though lawmakers were split on the Tester amendment and many Democrats in the House lamented that their stronger 2009 version did not survive the bicameral process, the response from consumer, public health, and industry groups was almost unanimously positive. 

But the United Fresh Produce Association, which staunchly opposed any exemptions based on size rather than on science or risk, said that while “the bill will do much good,” they remain concerned about the small farm exemptions.

“The legislation passed today on Capitol Hill ensures a number of important provisions that we have long supported, including implementation of preventive controls for production and processing of specific fruits and vegetables when shown necessary by a risk-based, scientific analysis by FDA, will be integrated into the food safety framework moving forward,” said Robert Guenther, vice president for public policy at United Fresh. “We remain fearful that this profound error will come back to haunt Congress, public health agencies, and even those who thought they would benefit from food safety exemptions, but more importantly, we are fearful of what may slip through the food safety loopholes created by the Tester/Hagan Amendment and adversely affect consumers in the United States.”

Jean Halloran, director of food policy initiatives at Consumers Union, lauded the bill’s passage.

“This is a big victory for consumers that finally brings food-safety laws into the 21st century,” said Halloran. “This win is a powerful testament to the people across the country who came to Washington to tell their lawmakers how contaminated food had killed their loved ones or left them horribly sick. This win is for them and all Americans.”

“This is the most significant change to food safety regulation in 75 years,” noted food safety consultant David Acheson, who served as associate commissioner during the Bush administration.  “It represents the basis for significant and immediate public health gains for the American public.”