Food Safety Bill: Early Christmas Present from Congress, or Lump of Coal?

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The federal government apparently doesnt like the idea of vulnerable populations getting sick from tainted food. Maybe a new bill will help. (Image from foodsafety.gov.)
  • The federal government apparently doesn't like the idea of vulnerable populations getting sick from tainted food. Maybe a new bill will help. (Image from foodsafety.gov.)
I'm about to violate one of the basic rules of journalism: I posed a question in the headline and I'm not sure what the answer is.

Yesterday, the U.S. Senate passed a massive bill to beef up the nation's food safety system, and the support was unusually bipartisan. The House passed its own version last year, and both houses must agree on a final version — hopefully before lawmakers split town for their holiday break.

The bill is a response to an urgent crisis — a wave of tainted food disasters, some of them deadly. But in Washington, every issue is acutely political, with various interest groups chiming in (big industrial farms, small organic farms, anti-regulation libertarians, consumer protection groups and litigators who cash in on both sides of food scandals).

Here's some reaction to the bill:

* President Obama, who has said he worries about the peanut butter in his kids' sandwiches, praised the Senate vote and hopes to sign the final bill soon. Choosy presidents choose Jif! Or at least salmonella-free sandwich spread.

* Small farmers fear that stronger, intrusive regulation will cripple their mom-and-pop operations. To assuage those fears, Democratic Sen. Jon Tester of Montana added an amendment that exempts producers with less than $500,000 in annual sales who sell most of their food locally. Predictably, that has incensed larger produce conglomerates.

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* Conservative commentator Glenn Beck railed against the bill on Monday, but weirdly, his argument rested on the assertion that agribusiness megalith Monsanto is for it. Monsanto denied that it backs the bill.

* Consumer groups like the Center for Science in the Public Interest praised the bill. And everybody's favorite omnivore, Michael Pollan, sees no dilemma: He endorsed the bill.

* Rep. John Dingell, who wrote the House version of the bill, criticized the Senate version because unlike the House, the Senate doesn't call for fees on food facilities to help finance FDA's food safety inspection efforts. That could leave the new regulation woefully underfinanced, he said, though he embraced the Senate version anyway.

* Bill Marler, a high-profile attorney who files personal-injury lawsuits on behalf of people injured by tainted food, said he was pleased by the bill, but like many people he fears it won't get passed before the current Congress expires.

Thus we arrive at the potential coal scuttle full of lumps. The biggest disappointment of all, bigger even than a lumpy, underfunded holiday fruitcake of a bill, could be if the two houses don't get their act together and they fail to deliver a final product to the president's desk before the session ends.

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