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And I'm Robert Siegel.
We turn now to the lame duck Congress, where the Senate gave broad bipartisan approval today to an overhaul of food safety rules, the largest in seven decades. Senators passed legislation giving the Food and Drug Administration wider powers to regulate processed foods, to carry out inspections and to demand recalls.
As NPR's David Welna reports, the Senate's version of the bill is not as strong as the one passed by the House last year. But it's what this Congress is likely to enact in its final days.
DAVID WELNA: Today's Senate vote was a long time coming. Eighteen years ago, while still a member of the House, Democratic Senator Dick Durbin started a crusade to update food safety laws. It began, he said, after he was contacted by a constituent named Nancy Donley.
Senator DICK DURBIN (Democrat, Illinois): Nancy had a personal tragedy. Her six year old son Alex died from E. coli from food that Nancy literally prepared for him in their home. And she wrote to me, a handwritten letter to me as a congressman from Springfield, Illinois, 200 miles away, saying we've got to do something about food safety.
WELNA: Since then, a series of deadly E. coli and salmonella outbreaks involving peanuts, spinach and fresh eggs has convinced food producers it's in their interest, as well as the general public's, to have stronger food safety guidelines.
Senator TOM HARKIN (Democrat, Iowa): Is this bill going to stop everyone from getting sick from eating food? No.
WELNA: Iowa Democrat Tom Harkin noted that groups ranging from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to the Center for Science and the Public Interest, have endorsed the bill.
Sen. HARKIN: This is not going to be 100 percent perfect. Will it be better than what we have? You bet it will be. It's going to prevent a lot of food-borne illnesses that otherwise would happen in this country under the present system that we have.
WELNA: The bill would require large food producers to submit detailed safety plans to the FDA. It would step up FDA inspections of the highest risk producers. For the first time it would give the FDA powers to order recalls of tainted food. And it would require new safety standards for imported foods. But to build support, the Senate added a provision exempting small and local food producers from the new rules.
It also left out a provision the House approved, making food producers help pay for the FDA's broader inspections. Oklahoma Republican Tom Coburn warned that tax payers would be on the hook. He also faulted the bill for not putting a single agency in charge of all food inspection.
Senator TOM COBURN (Republican, Oklahoma): 'Cause the only think that's going to fix the real problems with food safety in this country is us holding the regulators accountable, not giving them a whole bunch more regulations, and we haven't done that.
WELNA: The bill passed 73 to 25. Retiring Connecticut Democrat Christopher Dodd pointed to the vote as evidence bipartisanship can exist in the Senate.
Senator CHRISTOPHER DODD (Democrat, Connecticut): All of the allegations that this body cannot come to a common agreement on a matter as important as this one is wrong. We can when we work at it and we have done so with this bill.
WELNA: Senators backing the measure say they're confident the House will give it final passage before Republicans take over that chamber in January.
David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol.
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