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Senate passes safe-food bill that widens FDA authority

WASHINGTON - The Senate passed legislation Monday to make food safer in the wake of deadly E. coli and salmonella outbreaks, potentially giving the government broad new powers to increase inspections of food processing facilities and force companies to recall tainted food.

The $1.4-billion bill, which would also place stricter standards on imported foods, passed the Senate 73-25, with New York Sens. Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand, both Democrats, voting for the bill. Supporters said passage was critical after widespread outbreaks in peanuts, eggs and produce.

Those outbreaks have exposed a lack of resources and authority at the Food and Drug Administration 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 that the agency could try to stop outbreaks before they begin. Farmers and food processors would have to tell the FDA how they are working to keep their food safe at different stages of production.

Despite wide bipartisan support and backing from many major food companies, the legislation stalled as it came under fire from advocates of buying locally produced food and operators of small farms, who said it could bankrupt some small businesses.

Senators eventually agreed to exempt some of those operations from costly food safety plans required of bigger companies, rankling food safety advocates and larger growers but gaining support from farm-state senators.

Senate sponsors further softened the bill's impact on the food industry - including eliminating some fees that processors would have to pay and reducing the number of required inspections - to gain votes in the Senate and to make the bill more palatable in the House. A different version of the bill passed that chamber in 2009.

The bill's prospects are unclear since there is little time during the brief lame-duck congressional session for the House and Senate to reconcile different versions. Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin, sponsor of the Senate legislation, said he has agreement from some members in the House to pass the Senate bill, which would send the legislation straight to President Barack Obama's desk.

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