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This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer in for Steve Inskeep.
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The recall of a stunning half a billion eggs after more than a thousand Americans have fallen ill from salmonella has some politicians saying now is the time to toughen food safety laws. It would be the first major overhaul in more than 70 years.
In a moment we'll hear some ways to protect yourself against contaminated food. First, NPR's April Fulton takes a closer look at food safety proposals that have been languishing in Congress.
APRIL FULTON: Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro from Connecticut is frustrated. She's been working for decades to address the holes she sees in the food safety system. It's a system that's been tested again and again by salmonella, E. coli, Listeria and other bacteria that get into food and make millions of people sick every year.
Representative ROSA DELAURO (Democrat, Connecticut): You saw what happened with tomatoes, you saw what happened with lettuce, with peanuts, and now eggs.
FULTON: Just since May, government officials say there have been four times as many salmonella outbreaks detected as would normally be expected. DeLauro says this egg recall should set off alarms.
Rep. DELAURO: You've got over half a billion eggs recalled, 1,300 people are sick. We're not talking about roads, bridges, parks here. We are really talking about people's health.
FULTON: She says the Food and Drug Administration needs more authority and more power to take food off the market before there's a crisis. DeLauro is a key sponsor of a bill that passed the House of Representatives over a year ago. She says it might have helped prevent the egg recall from getting so big. The bill would give the FDA more inspectors and more power to examine producers' operations and records. It would also give the agency more power to quickly trace the source of a product suspected of causing illness, plus the power to force a recall.
Ms. AMI GADHIA (Consumers Union): Most people are incredibly shocked that FDA does not already have the authority to do this.
FULTON: That's Ami Gadhia of Consumers Union. She says right now the FDA can't force a recall. It only requests that companies take food off the market. And that means it could take weeks of negotiations before a recall can be issued. She says the House bill will give the FDA additional legal power to order food recalls.
Ms. GADHIA: It's going to give FDA additional resources, and it's going to give the agency the ability to staff up in ways that get at preventing foodborne illness outbreaks before they happen.
FULTON: Preventing outbreaks is also a goal of a similar bill in the Senate. But that bill has been stalled for over a year now, waiting for a vote.
Ms. GADHIA: The Senate has had in front of it a number of tremendous priorities. The health care reform bill has gone through the Senate, the financial reform bill has gone through the Senate, and we think this is a bill that deserves that same sort of attention and prioritization.
FULTON: It's not just the consumer advocates that want a food safety bill. The food industry generally supports it too, says Robert Guenther of the United Fresh Produce Association.
Mr. ROBERT GUENTHER (United Fresh Produce Association): I think that, you know, the main reason is we need to make sure that there's a strong consumer confidence that the produce that they're eating is safe and viable.
FULTON: The bill has significant support from both Democrats and Republicans. But some critics say the bill doesn't go far enough. It's only directed at the FDA. But as Ami Gadhia points out, there are more than a dozen federal agencies and state and local agencies too, that are responsible for different aspects of food safety. Eggs are just one example.
Ms. GADHIA: FDA has the authority over shell eggs that you buy in those cartons at the grocery store.
FULTON: But for the chickens themselves and the eggs that are cracked open before shipping, it's a different story, says Gadhia.
Ms. GADHIA: That is under the jurisdiction of USDA.
FULTON: Complicating it further, the food processed into egg-containing products, like cookies, cake and veggie lasagna, are regulated - again, by the FDA. Gadhia and others say what's really needed is a single food safety agency. But that's not what's on the table right now.
A spokesman for the Senate Majority Leader says the Senate may turn to the FDA food safety bill after it returns from summer break.
April Fulton, NPR News, Washington.
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