WASHINGTON-Brushing aside fanatical tea party opposition, the Senate voted 73 to 25 Nov. 30 to approve a bill to confer sweeping new powers on the Food and Drug Administration to test food for pathogens and, for the first time, to grant the FDA power to order recall of contaminated food.
The House, which approved an even stronger food safety bill last summer, is expected to vote quickly to approve the Senate measure and send it to President Obama for his signature.
Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, lead sponsor of the bill said, "We have taken momentous steps help strengthen food safety in America."
Advocates of food safety hailed the measure as the most sweeping reform of food safety in decades prompted by an alarming rise in the numbers of people who die or suffer illness from contaminated food.
Sen. Majority Leader Harry Reid said, "No one in America should have to worry if the food the put on the table every night is going to harm them or their families."
Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla, introduced an alternative aimed at killing the bill. He claimed that only ten or twenty people die annually from contaminated food and that the $1.4 billion cost over five years-or about $300 million annually-- would mean higher food prices and also force family and independent food growers out of business.
Coburn also argued that granting FDA power to order recall of tainted food is unnecessary because food processors always agree to voluntary recalls.
These specious arguments were echoed by Glenn Beck and tea party Republicans.
But in a jointly-written piece in The New York Times, Michael Pollan, author of "Food Rules: An Eater's Manual" and Eric Schlosser, author of "Fast Food Nation" debunked Coburn's arguments as "wrong on every point."
Food-borne illnesses kill not ten or twenty but at least 5,000 people annually, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And a stunning 76 million people get sick from eating tainted food each year.
"Last year at the height of a nationwide salmonella outbreak that sickened thousands, spread via tainted peanut butter, the Westco Fruit and Nuts Company refused for weeks to recall potentially contaminated products, despite requests from the FDA," they wrote.
As for spending $300 million more every year to test for food-borne pathogens, a recent study by Georgetown University found the annual cost of food-borne illness in the United States is about $152 billion, the authors wrote. In Senator Coburn's home state, food illness costs $1.8 billion.
"Compared with those amounts, this bill is a real bargain."
Pollan and Schlosser said the Senate-passed measure is "the best opportunity in a generation to improve the safety of the American food supply," and while not "perfect" will greatly enhance FDA enforcement powers.
"The bill would, for the first time, give the FDA, which oversees 80 percent of the nation's food, the authority to test widely for dangerous pathogens and to recall contaminated food."
They cited last summer's outbreak, "when thousands of people were infected with salmonella from filthy, vermin infested henhouses in Iowa. Americans were outraged to learn that the FDA had never conducted a food safety inspection at these huge operations that produce billions of eggs a year. The new rules might have kept those people---mainly small children and the elderly-from getting sick."
The Senate-approved measure includes an exemption for independent and family farmers who produce $500,000 or less in annual sales, and feared the bill would impose ruinous costs on their operations. The exemption was authored by Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, a stronghold of family and independent farmers, and Montana Senator Jon Tester himself an independent farmer.
Said Sanders, "I firmly believe that not all foods and processing are equally risky and that a one-size-fits-all approach will not work."
Only about half the eligible food facilities were inspected by FDA during the past five years because there are so few inspectors to cover the 68,000 food producing farms and food processing plants. Over that time period, the number of inspections fell from 17,000 to 15,000 even as the outbreak of food-borne illness surged.
Photo: An FDA inspector checks the temperature of diced strawberries on a salad bar. The FDA says refrigeration must be 41 degrees or below to prevent the growth of disease-causing bacteria. (FDA/United States Government Work)