Commentary: Food safety should be a Senate priority

Last month it was unsanitary eggs from industrial-scale poultry farms in America's heartland. Last year it was tainted peanuts from Georgia. Both involved outbreaks of deadly salmonella poisoning. Go back another couple of years and food products and additives from China were making grim news.

It shouldn't take an act of Congress to clean up our domestic and imported food supply, but apparently it does, and Congress is close to acting. The stage is set, and final action should be a top priority for the full Senate.

Although some opposition remains on the particulars, there's bipartisan agreement in favor of the overall Food Safety Modernization Act. The Senate bill's sponsors — Republican Sen. Richard Burr among them — call it a "systematic, risk-based and balanced approach to food safety in the United States."

All that remains is floor debate on the bill and amendments, and working out differences with the House, which passed its version earlier. The key now is a full Senate vote, which ought be scheduled right away. The problem the food safety bill addresses is urgent, and SB 510 is a reasonable, well-considered attempt to make things better for a huge "special-interest" group: Americans who eat.

Overall, the bill modernizes and strengthens the creaky, confusing food inspection system that developed over the 100-plus years since tainted meat from unsanitary slaughterhouses first roused Congress to act. It gives the Food and Drug Administration badly needed power to order mandatory food-product recalls, and it requires that the agency conduct more inspections at processing plants and other facilities (and it helps provide more inspectors).

The bill tackles the tainted-import problem by requiring that importers verify the safety of their foreign suppliers. It also allows the FDA to require certification for high-risk foods. Food from a foreign faculty that has refused a U.S. inspection could be barred entirely.

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