March 3, 2009 / 9:44 PM / 10 years ago

Bipartisan lawmakers call for food safety overhaul

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Food and Drug Administration should conduct more food inspections and the government should have better access to industry test results during an emergency, Senate lawmakers said on Tuesday, amid one of the biggest food recalls in history.

A bipartisan team of lawmakers introduced a bill that would expand FDA funding and give the agency more power to recall food. It would also require importers to verify the safety of foreign imports and demand that plants address hazards and prevent product contamination.

The legislation was introduced as the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that 677 people have been sickened in an outbreak of salmonella traced to peanut products — an outbreak that has affected more than 2,800 separate products.

“It’s clear that the FDA ... the agency charged with protecting nearly 80 percent of our food supply in this nation, simply can’t keep up with the challenge,” said Senate Assistant Majority Leader Richard Durbin, a longtime critic of the existing food safety system.

The bill also has the support of Democratic Senators Edward Kennedy, Chris Dodd and Amy Klobuchar and Republicans Judd Gregg, Richard Burr, Saxby Chambliss and Lamar Alexander.

Illness outbreaks spawned by contaminated lettuce, peppers and spinach have eroded public confidence in food safety and renewed calls for change at the FDA. President Barack Obama has promised a thorough review of the agency.

Several bills have been introduced in Congress proposing food safety overhauls, but they have stalled. Lawmakers were confident this time would be different.

“There is momentum for this. The simple fact is, that as far as I know, there is no significant opposition to” this bill, said Gregg. “We think there is a likelihood that it will pass.”

The Senate bill also has the support of several groups including the Center for Science in the Public Interest, Consumers Union and the Grocery Manufacturers Association.

This is “sensible legislation that will strengthen the foundation of America’s food safety systems,” said Pam Bailey, head of the Grocery Manufacturers Association.

A key part of the bill would expand FDA access to records during an emergency. FDA would have access to records from a food facility if there is a concern that a food product is adulterated and presents a serious health threat to animals or humans.

FDA officials have pressed Congress for more funding and authority, including the ability to conduct mandatory recalls.

Representative Rosa DeLauro unveiled a bill last month that would create the Food Safety Administration and put an emphasis on preventing food contamination. A food safety expert would run the new agency.

Editing by Maggie Fox

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