WASHINGTON — The House has passed sweeping legislation that aims to make food safer in the wake of E. coli and salmonella outbreaks in peanuts, eggs and produce.
The bill would give the government broad new powers to increase inspections of food processing facilities and force companies to recall tainted food. The House is sending the bill to the Senate as part of a giant year-end budget bill.
The Senate overwhelmingly passed the bill last week, but it stalled after House Democrats said it contained fees that are considered tax provisions. Under the Constitution, such legislation should have originated in the House.
By sending the food safety bill back to the Senate tucked into the larger spending bill that must be passed by the end of the year, Democrats are hoping to circumvent Republican objections that delayed passage for months in the Senate. The budget bill narrowly passed the House 212-206 Wednesday.
The $1.4 billion bill would place stricter standards on imported foods. It also would require larger producers to keep detailed food safety plans and follow stricter standards for keeping food safe.
Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., the sponsor of a House version of the bill passed in 2009, said the legislation would help protect Americans from unsafe food coming in from China and other countries.
"All manner of unsafe commodities are coming in and being sold to the American people," Dingell said. "This legislation will cure and address those problems."
Recent domestic outbreaks of E. coli and salmonella have exposed a lack of resources and authority at the FDA as the embattled agency struggled to contain and trace the contaminated products. The agency rarely inspects many food facilities and farms, visiting some every decade or so and others not at all.
The bill would emphasize prevention so the agency could try to stop outbreaks before they begin. Farmers and food processors would have to tell the Food and Drug Administration how they are working to keep their food safe at different stages of production.
The bill has widespread bipartisan support and passed the Senate 73-25 on Nov. 30. But Republican Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma had blocked the bill for several months, saying he was delaying passage because it wasn't paid for. Supporters were concerned that Republican objections could again trip up the bill in the Senate if the House sent it back by itself with the constitutional issue fixed.
Several House Republicans objected to the bill's inclusion in the spending legislation on Wednesday.
Republican Rep. Frank Lucas of Oklahoma, the incoming chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, wrote colleagues saying the process wasn't open to members who had objections. Lucas and other rural Republicans criticized the bill when it was passed by the House in 2009, saying the new FDA oversight would be burdensome for farmers.
"If the Senate missed such an obvious issue when it passed S. 510, it makes us wonder what else it missed," Lucas and Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, said in the letter, referring to the constitutional glitch in the Senate bill.
Supporters say they are encouraged that almost three-quarters of the Senate supported the bill, despite the procedural hurdles.
"We're pretty cautiously optimistic that whatever the vehicle is there's pretty broad support for moving the bill," said food safety advocate Erik Olson, director of food and consumer product safety at the Pew Health Group.
The bill would not apply to meat, poultry or processed eggs, which are regulated by the Agriculture Department. Those foods have long been subject to much more rigorous inspections and oversight than FDA-regulated foods.
The federal Centers for Disease Control has estimated that tens of millions of Americans are sickened and thousands die from foodborne illnesses each year.