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Senate Passes Sweeping Food-Safety Bill

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WASHINGTON -- After stalling for more than a year, a sweeping food-safety bill passed with bipartisan support in the Senate on Tuesday, paving the way for increased federal inspections and other preventative measures. The vote was 73 to 25.

Though the bill has yet to be reconciled with a previous version passed by the House in July 2009, there has been some indication that the House will adopt the Senate's bill, a senior Democratic aide tells HuffPost.

The Food Safety Modernization Act would strengthen the power of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which oversees 80 percent of the nation's food supply, vastly improving its ability to ensure safety.

The law will focus on the areas of food-borne illness prevention, detection and response. It will also protect American consumers from unsafe food made overseas by subjecting imported foods to the same standards as food produced in the United States.

The bill is thought to be the most significant overhaul of the food-safety system in decades, and, as noted by Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) on the Senate floor on Monday, it has attracted uncommonly broad support.

"I realize that the bipartisan road is not always easy to follow, but I can confidently say when we approach legislation in this manner, we often end up with a better, stronger and more responsive law in the end," said Dodd. "I think this bill is an example of just that."

The $1.4 billion measure has the backing of Congressional Democrats and has been touted by the likes of environmental activist Michael Pollan, who, in a New York Times op-ed on Sunday, called the measure "the best opportunity in a generation to improve the safety of the American food supply."

Meanwhile the conservative U.S. Chamber of Commerce endorsed the bill on Monday, arguing it will "improve America's ability to prevent food borne illness and boost consumer confidence in U.S. food supplies while minimally burdening small farms and consumers."

Introduced by Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), the legislation will likely be one of the few bills to move quickly in Congress's "lame duck" session. Indeed the bill, S.510, is a rare example of the Chamber working with Democrats both on and off of Capitol Hill.

"This legislation would improve food safety by requiring all food manufacturers to develop a food safety plan, providing the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) with new tools to ensure the safety of imported food, and employing a rational, risk-based approach to inspection," wrote Bruce Josten, the Chamber's executive vice president, in a statement. "On this basis alone the Chamber supports final passage of the bill." (Read the Chamber's full letter of endorsement here.)

The legislation's wide-ranging support may be attributable, in part, to recent food contamination outbreaks. Last summer after thousands of people were infected with salmonella, Americans were angry to learn that the FDA had never conducted food safety inspections at operations that produce billions of eggs a year. The new guidelines aim to prevent such outbreaks and such outrage.

The House passed its version of the bill with bipartisan support back in July 2009, but the legislation hit a roadblock in the Senate. The newest version includes few changes beyond an amendment by Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) to exempt small farmers from new controls if they sell directly to consumers and bring in less than $500,000 in annual sales. (While major agricultural groups don't want small growers to have any less regulation than they do, small producers counter they don't get thousands of people sick if they have an outbreak.)

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