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House Speaker-designate Rep. John Boehner (R-OH) speaks on Capitol Hill. Boehner was one of 144 members of Congress to vote against the Food Safety Modernization Act.
House Speaker-designate Rep. John Boehner (R-OH) speaks on Capitol Hill. Boehner was one of 144 members of Congress to vote against the Food Safety Modernization Act. Mark Wilson/Getty Images
John Nichols is the Washington correspondent for The Nation. He is also the associate editor of the Capital Times, the daily newspaper in Madison, Wisconsin.
The U.S. Senate voted unanimously for the Food Safety Modernization Act, a sweeping measure that gives the federal government broad new powers to inspect processing plants, order recalls of contaminated products and apply U.S. standards to imported foods.
No surprise there.
After recent contamination scares involving peanuts, eggs and produce, Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives, should be able to be able to put aside differences and agree that it's important to assure that what we eat does not make us sick.
You would think that protecting kids from food-borne illness would be something everyone in Congress could agree upon.
You would, unfortunately, be wrong.
When the measure got to the House, the overwhelming majority of Republicans voted against food safety.
Apparently, House Republicans are so committed to freedom that they are determined to defend the right of salmonella and listeria to roam at the dinner table.
As a result the food-safety bill was approved in the House by a mere 215-144 majority – more than enough to send this vital bill to the president's desk – but hardly a ringing endorsement.
The "yes" votes came from 205 Democrats and 10 Republicans.
The "no" votes were those of 136 Republicans and 8 Democrats (most of them farm-state Blue Dogs).
Among the Republican "no" voters were incoming Speaker John Boehner, incoming Majority Leader Eric Cantor and incoming Agriculture Committee chairman Frank Lucas.
The Food Safety Modernization Act will become law. And it will do a lot of good by:
1. Allowing the FDA to order a recall of tainted foods. Currently the agency can only negotiate with businesses to order voluntary recalls;
2. Requiring the FDA to create new produce safety regulations for producers of the highest risk fruits and vegetables;
3. Increasing inspections of domestic and foreign food facilities, directing the most resources to those operations with the highest risk profiles. The riskiest domestic facilities would be inspected every three years;
4. Requiring farms and processors to keep records to help the government trace recalled foods;
5. Requiring grocery stores to proactively alert consumers about recalls.
"This is a big victory for consumers that finally brings food-safety laws into the 21st century," says Jean Halloran, the director of food policy initiatives at Consumers Union. "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. For a long time, we've been saying that we needed to do a better job of making sure our food is safe, and under this bill, we will."
Good news for consumers is bad news for salmonella, however.
No matter how you spin it, food-borne illness lost a round with the passage of the Food Safety Modernization Act.
But don't think that stomach sickness will disappear altogether. Food poisoning will be well represented when Boehner and his fellow Republicans take charge of the House in January.