Strong bipartisan support propelled one of the biggest overhauls of the nation's food safety rules to passage in the Senate Tuesday.
The bill must now be reconciled with a version passed by the House, then go to President Obama for his signature.
The new rules shift the government's emphasis to protecting Americans from tainted food before they get sick, rather than trying to clean up the mess afterward.
Among the key provisions:
- The Food and Drug Administration will be granted sweeping new powers to issue mandatory recalls of contaminated food. Currently, the FDA requires cooperation from the food industry to carry out a recall.
- The bill beefs up inspections of food-processing facilities and mandates that the same rules apply for imported food—a source of concern with an increasingly globalized food supply. According to the New York Times, one-fifth of the food Americans eat—and 75 percent of our seafood—is imported.
- A food tracking system will be put in place to more easily pinpoint the source of contamination.
- Both the House and the Senate versions of the bill would impact about 80 percent of the food supply, including fresh produce, eggs and processed foods that don't contain meat. But slaughterhouses and poultry farms are not covered—they are inspected separately by the USDA.
- Senator Jon Tester (D-Montana) introduced an amendment that would exempt small farmers and those who sell directly to consumers at places like farmers markets. Those communities had raised concerns about the cost and logistics of complying with the new rules.
Large outbreaks of foodborne illness and recalls have buffeted the nation in recent years. This summer, a recall of 500 million eggs refocused attention on the need for new food safety rules: 1,600 people were sickened by tainted eggs in that outbreak. Foodborne illnesses kill 5,000 people each year in the U.S.
Past recalls have involved spinach, peanuts, and jalapenos. And Whole Foods announced just last week that it is recalling several kinds of cheese that are suspected of E. coli contamination.