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Obama To Sign Food Safety Bill Today

DARLENE SUPERVILLE and MARY CLARE JALONICK   01/ 4/11 07:52 PM ET   AP

Obama Sign Food Safety Bill

WASHINGTON — Foreshadowing the coming power struggles between the White House and a more Republican Congress, President Barack Obama on Tuesday signed a $1.4 billion overhaul of the nation's food safety system as some lawmakers complained that it's too expensive and threatened its funding.

The first major overhaul of the food safety system since the 1930s, the law emphasizes prevention to help stop deadly outbreaks of foodborne illness before they occur, instead of reacting after consumers become ill.

It calls for increasing government inspections at food processing facilities and, for the first time, gives the Food and Drug Administration the power to order the recall of unsafe foods.

Obama made improving food safety a priority shortly after taking office in 2009. There have been several deadly outbreaks of E. coli and salmonella poisoning in peanuts, eggs and produce in the past few years.

But some Republicans lawmakers, sensitive to the public's concerns about high levels of government spending and debt, say the $1.4 billion, five-year price tag is too much and needs more scrutiny.

"I think we'll look very carefully at the funding before we support $1.4 billion," Rep. Jack Kingston, R-Ga., told The Associated Press in an interview. Kingston hopes to become chairman of the agriculture subcommittee of the House panel that helps set government spending.

Republicans who want to withhold funding would appear to have little chance of succeeding. The bill passed Congress with broad bipartisan support last year on a 73-25 vote in the Senate and by 215-144 in the House.

Major food companies backed the bill, recognizing that safe food is good for business. Recent outbreaks in spinach and other foods hurt those industries financially as consumers reacted to recalls or stopped buying those products.

Obama quietly signed the bill at the White House after returning earlier Tuesday from a family vacation in Hawaii, a day before a more Republican and less White House-friendly Congress returns to session Wednesday. In the new Congress, Republicans will control the House and operate with a larger minority in the Senate.

The White House said the fact that Obama enacted the overhaul out of public view was not a sign that the food safety issue had become less important. A public ceremony was not arranged for logistical reasons, officials said.

Kingston said recent data from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show the food supply is "99.999 percent safe" and that the FDA is doing a "very decent job on food safety already."

The CDC recently estimated that 48 million people – or one in six Americans – are sickened every year by a foodborne illness. Of that, 180,000 are hospitalized and 3,000 die.

The U.S. has a population of more than 300 million.

Kingston thinks it will be difficult to justify such a big spending boost for an agency whose budget has increased in recent years and when government data suggest the system is working.

Supporters of the law said they will press for full funding.

Erik Olson, who directs food and consumer safety programs for the Pew Health Group, said the health care costs associated with an outbreak of contaminated food alone run into the tens of billions of dollars – far beyond what it would cost to put the law's new requirements into place.

Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, a lead sponsor of the bill, acknowledged the tough spending decisions that will have to be made, but he said food safety shouldn't be sacrificed in the process.

"Fiscal responsibility does not necessitate abandoning or neglecting the need of American consumers for safe food," Harkin said in a statement.

The new law would:

_Increase inspections of U.S. and foreign food facilities; the riskiest U.S. facilities would be inspected every three years. The FDA rarely inspected most facilities and farms, visiting some about once a decade and others not at all.

_Allow the FDA to order the recall of tainted food. Previously, the agency could only negotiate with businesses for voluntary recalls.

_Impose new safety regulations on producers of the highest-risk fruits and vegetables.

_Require processors to prepare detailed food safety plans and tell the FDA what steps they are taking to keep their food safe at different stages of production. The government would use the information to trace recalled foods.

The law exempts meat, poultry and processed eggs, since they are regulated by the Agriculture Department.

Also exempt are some small businesses, which had complained that the new requirements could force some of them into bankruptcy.

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Filed by Colin Sterling  |