The Food Safety Bill Finally Passes, But It’s Just the First Step

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REUTERS/Frank Polich

Well, it only took three votes in the House of Representatives and two votes in the Senate, plus a little back and forth over basic constitutionality, but the landmark Food Safety and Modernization Act is now poised to become law, pending President Obama’s signature today. The bill represents the first major overhaul of the American food safety system since 1938, and will finally allow the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to order mandatory recalls in the event of tainted or contaminated food, a power the agency amazingly has never possessed. (More on Time.com: Consumer Reports Warns Pregnant Women Against Canned Tuna)

The legislation will also significantly boost the FDA’s ability to oversee food imports, mandating that the agency conduct at least 600 inspections of overseas facilities in its first year, with that number doubling for the following five years.

Domestically both large and small food producers will need to keep better records and the FDA will aim to eventually carry out inspections every three years on facilities, compared with once every 10-and-a-half years now. “The most significant change is that this moves from a reactive food safety system, reacting to contamination, to a prevention based one,” says Erik Olson, director of the food and consumer product safety programs for the Pew Health Group. (You can read more details about the bill on Ecocentric.)

For food safety advocates, who have long raised the alarm over the 3,000 Americans estimated to die each year from foodborne illnesses, the bill was a long time coming — and they almost didn’t make it. Though the legislation enjoyed relatively bipartisan support from this Congress, and the House passed a tougher version of the bill last year, the Senate predictably dragged its feet, and only managed to pass its version of the legislation during the lame duck session at the end of November. That should have been enough — but a procedural problem in the Senate version essentially invalidated that vote, throwing the fate of the bill in doubt. (Supporters were eager to get this bill passed into law this year, knowing that the more conservative Congress next year might have blocked action.) (More on Time.com: Senate Passes Bill to Overhaul Food Safety)

With time running out, the House quickly passed the Senate’s version of the bill, and then the Senate, to the surprise of many legislative observers, managed to motivate itself to pass the bill again this weekend. It went back to the House on Tuesday, where it passed again 215–144, and it now goes to the President’s desk. Schoolhouse Rock, this was not, but for food safety advocates winning ugly is still winning. “This outcome is really a new chapter in the nation’s history when it comes to food safety,” says Pamela Bailey, president and CEO of the Grocery Manufacturers Association. “This update and modernization is long overdue.”

The bill isn’t perfect — it covers only the 80% or so of the nation’s food system covered by the FDA. (It excludes meat, poultry and most eggs, which are overseen by the Department of Agriculture.) And though many industry groups supported the bill, there was opposition by food producers who claimed the actions will raise costs, and who were unhappy about exemptions made for small, local producers. The exemptions “will limit the ability of the [Food and Drug Administration] to assure consumers that all foods they purchase, whether at grocery stores, restaurants, farm markets or elsewhere, have met the same food-safety standards,” said United Fresh Produce Association Senior Vice President of Public Policy Robert Guenther in a statement yesterday.

There are bigger problems than some industry opposition, however. While the bill gives the FDA sweeping new authority and responsibility to improve its policing of the country’s food system, it offers no way to pay for the added coverage. The original House version of the bill passed last year contained a fee that would have helped cover the additional costs to the FDA, but that was stripped out of the final version by the Senate. (More on Time.com: Health Care Under the Golden Arches: Cheap But Faulty)

The Congressional Budget Office has estimated that the legislation would cost an additional $600 million by 2015, but with Republicans controlling the purse strings next year and in no mood for added spending, it’s not clear where that money will come from. “To fulfill the promise of this legislation you need to make sure the FDA has the resources it needs,” says Olson. An unfunded mandate won’t keep Americans safe from foodborne illness.

More on TIME.com:

Getting Real About the High Price of Cheap Food

The Food Safety Bill: Flawed and Needed

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