Outside editorial: Food safety bill offers welcome display of bipartisanship

Posted: Friday, December 03, 2010

The following editorial originally appeared in the San Jose Mercury News:

Maybe bipartisanship in the U.S. Senate isn't dead after all.

In a rare display of old-school political compromise, the Senate came together Tuesday morning and passed a comprehensive food safety bill. It may not be perfect, but it's a vast improvement over the 70-year-old regulations that have been a constant source of frustration for the Food and Drug Administration.

The House, which last year passed its own version of the law, should work with the Senate on a final bill to send to the president before the end of the lame-duck session.

Give credit to the 15 Republicans who had the courage to help Democrats pass one of the biggest pieces of legislation in months. Their vote gives the FDA the power it should have had decades ago to recall tainted foods. It also authorizes more food safety inspections, gives the FDA more oversight over how safely fruits and vegetables are grown in the United States and abroad, and creates a better system for tracking food from fields to grocery stores and restaurants.

American consumers may think food safety isn't a partisan issue. Somehow, it has been turned into one. Republican Sen. Tom Coburn, of Oklahoma, arguing against big government, wrote the United States "has the safest food supply in the world, and it has never been safer." Tell that to the families of the 5,000 Americans who die annually from food-borne illnesses. Or to the 76 million Americans who suffer food poisoning every year.

Fox commentator Glenn Beck went a step further, arguing that Democrats' efforts to pass the legislation were designed to give "the government complete control over farmlands." He even theorized that the bill was designed to reduce Americans' consumption of meat. Here's a news flash for Beck: It's the USDA, not the FDA, that inspects meat and poultry.

Beck unwittingly highlighted one of the weaknesses of the Senate legislation. Ten years ago, the National Academy of Congress urged federal lawmakers to house all federal food safety regulators under one roof, rather than dividing them between the FDA and the USDA. That will have to wait. But at least enough Senate Republicans ignored Beck and helped give the FDA far greater ability to stop unsafe foods from making people sick.

The Senate legislation demands:

• The government create a system to make it easier to track and locate contaminated foods. The FDA has had great difficulty determining the source of recent salmonella outbreaks.

• All foreign food suppliers comply with the new guidelines and be subjected to increased inspections. The FDA currently inspects less than 1 percent of imported food.

• The FDA receive additional funding to step up inspections.

American consumers shouldn't expect the legislation to completely stop outbreaks of food-borne illness. But the bipartisan effort represents a major improvement to the nation's food safety system that should be celebrated by every American, regardless of party.

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