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House passes food safety bill

WASHINGTON — The House approved the first major changes to food safety laws in 70 years on Thursday, giving sweeping new authority to the Food and Drug Administration to regulate the way food is grown, harvested and processed.

The action follows a wave of food-borne illnesses over the last two years, involving products as varied as spinach and cookie dough, which has shaken consumer confidence and made the issue a priority for congressional leaders and the White House. Food illnesses sicken one in four Americans and kill 5,000 each year, according to government statistics.

Tainted food has cost the food industry billions of dollars in recalls, lost sales and legal costs.

"Americans are dying because the Food and Drug Administration does not have authority to protect them and American producers and agriculture are being hurt," said Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., the bill's author, who has been pushing food safety reform for more than 20 years. "This will fundamentally change the way in which we ensure the safety of our food supply."

The measure passed by a margin of 283 to 142. The Senate is expected to take up its version after the August recess. President Obama, who has voiced concerns about the safety of peanut butter consumed by his 8-year-old daughter, endorsed the House bill Wednesday.

The House bill affects every aspect of the U.S. food system, from farmers to manufacturers to importers. It places significant new responsibilities on farmers and food processors to prevent contamination before it occurs — a departure from the country's reactive tradition that has relied on government inspectors to catch tainted food after the fact.

The 159-page legislation was backed by a raft of consumer groups and trade associations but faced opposition from some farm interests and their House Republican allies, who charged that it gives too much authority to the FDA and will lead to higher costs and burdensome paperwork without necessarily making food safer.

"The federal government will tell our farmers and ranchers how to do something they've been doing since the dawn of mankind," said Rep. Frank Lucas, R-Okla. "It goes too far in the direction of trying to produce food from a bureaucrat's chair in Washington, D.C."

The legislation requires food producers and importers to pay an annual $500 registration fee, which would help pay for stepped-up FDA inspections, enforcement and related activities such as food safety research. An estimated 360,000 facilities in the United States and abroad would be subject to the fees. The Congressional Budget Office reported that the fees would not cover the cost of the new system, leaving FDA to incur a net cost of $2.2 billion over five years.

If passed into law, the bill would be the first major overhaul of food laws since 1938, when Congress gave the FDA the power to oversee the safety of most foods, as well as drugs and cosmetics. At that time, the government was mostly concerned about food makers intentionally adulterating products by substituting ingredients or using additives to mask rancid meat and vegetables.

But as the food industry has changed over time, new threats have emerged. Deadly pathogens such as E. coli O157:H7, can contaminate foods without the knowledge of farmers, manufacturers or consumers. An increasing amount of food Americans consume — about 15 percent — is imported, with little known about overseas growing or processing methods. And the U.S. food supply chain has grown increasingly complex, with some manufacturers unsure where raw ingredients originate.

The legislation requires food manufacturers to identify the particular risks they face, create controls to prevent that contamination, monitor those controls to make sure they are working and update those measures regularly. Such controls have been mandatory for the seafood and juice industries since the 1990s after several high-profile contamination cases; they are widely believed to have reduced outbreaks involving those products.

The House bill calls for the FDA to set safety standards for farmers who grow food and manufacturers who process it. And it requires imported food to meet the same standards.

The legislation requires the FDA to sharply step up inspections. Currently, the FDA inspects food facilities about once a decade. The legislation would also mandate inspections of high-risk facilities at least every 18 months and low-risk facilities at least every three years.

The bill also gives the FDA significant authority aimed at containing outbreaks of food-borne illnesses. The agency would be able to recall food if it suspects contamination, instead of relying on the food maker to act voluntarily. It also allows the FDA to quarantine a geographic area, blocking the distribution of a suspect food to the rest of the country. And the bill gives the FDA access to records at farms and food production facilities.

Under the legislation, the food agency will get new enforcement powers and be able to impose beefed-up civil and criminal penalties. One provision allows the FDA to declare food "adulterated" simply if the grower or manufacturer has failed to follow safety standards, regardless of whether the food is actually tainted.

The bill does not address the fractured nature of U.S. food regulation, which is spread among 15 different federal agencies, as well as thousands of state and local health departments.

Agriculture interests were able to win some key concessions. Small farms are exempt from registration fees, ranchers and farmers already regulated by the Department of Agriculture are excluded from the requirements of the bill, and the FDA will have to consider the special concerns of small growers and organic farmers, among other provisions.