Senate Passes Overhaul Of Food Safety System

The Senate has approved new food safety rules that consumer advocates are calling historic. Among other things, the bill would allow the Food and Drug Administration to order the recall of contaminated food, something it doesn't have the power to do now.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And big changes could be in store for the nation's food safety system. The Senate passed a bill yesterday that would give the government more power to police food producers.

NPR's Tamara Keith reports.

TAMARA KEITH: Want to know why this bill is needed? Michael Jacobsen says just look at the recent history of food-borne illness outbreaks.

Mr. MICHAEL JACOBSEN (Executive Director, Center for Science in the Public Interest): Contaminated peanut butter, contaminated spinach, contaminated green onions - we've had one outbreak after another, sometimes involving thousands of illnesses.

KEITH: Jacobsen is executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a group that's been pushing for years to strengthen the food safety system.

The bill, for the first time, sets safety standards for imported foods. It puts new requirements on farmers and food processors to prevent contamination. And if a problem is found, it gives the FDA the power to recall certain food items - something it wasn't able to do before.

But critics and backers alike say the legislation isn't as strong as it could be. The United Fresh Produce Association pulled its support for the bill after an amendment was added to exempt some small farms. Ray Gilmer, at the Produce Association, describes it as a loophole.

Mr. RAY GILMER (United Fresh Produce Association): We need to ensure that consumers know, every time they go to the store, that every product that they choose has met the same high food safety standard - no exceptions.

KEITH: The House passed a stronger food safety bill more than a year ago, and it's unclear whether House leaders will accept the Senate version to speed it to the president's desk.

Tamara Keith, NPR News, Washington.

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