Amid the sour partisan rancor in Washington, there is a glimmer of sweet hope. The FDA Food Safety Modernization Act stands a good chance to pass the Senate on Monday night. The bill, which increases the Food and Drug Administration's authority over the food supply, has been worked on by Republicans and Democrats for two years. The finished product, while not a four-star creation, is certainly palatable.
The bill would give the FDA mandatory recall authority — a power it oddly now lacks — as well as the authority to test widely for dangerous pathogens and trace the outbreaks back to their source. It would subject imported food to federal inspection standards.
It marks the first overhaul of the federal food safety regulatory system in more than seven decades, and it has enjoyed bipartisan support in the Senate and the House, where a version of the bill was approved in July 2009. Recently, a sticking point was removed when an amendment passed that exempts small farms and producers — the farm-to-table crowd — from the same regulatory procedures that bind big agriculture.
That amendment, engineered by Montana Sen. Jon Tester, places farms that sell food within 275 miles of their facilities and that sell no more than $500,000 a year under the jurisdiction of state and local health authorities. Larger farms would fall under the federal jurisdiction. And since locally produced salmonella is no better than the industrial agriculture variety, a so-called "one strike" provision in the legislation mandates that if a small farm has an outbreak of food-borne illness, it could lose its exemption.
This is a smart compromise. Small farmers won't be stymied by food regulations they can't afford to meet. It also recognizes that big operations, with their longer chain of custody and more complex food handling procedures, require federal oversight.
Moreover, it is crucial that such an obstacle be removed from the overall bill, which clarifies and strengthens the FDA's authority to prevent and react to food-borne illness. From salmonella-tainted eggs to E. coli-contaminated spinach, the nation has seen too many serious breaches of its food safety system in recent years to back away from this important legislation.
In the glow of good feeling that lingers from Thanksgiving, and mindful of the fact that the bill passed cloture last week by a vote of 74-25, Monday looks like a rare opportunity for the Senate to display bipartisan unity. A move by Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn, a Republican, to block the food safety bill by tying it to an unrelated moratorium on earmarks should be cast aside. It has no place at this table. Republicans and Democrats can't agree on much these days, but they should be able to agree that when Americans sit down to dinner, their food must be safe.