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Congress overhauls federal food safety efforts

Bill marks first effort to restructure oversight in more than 70 years.

After ping-ponging between chambers three times in the past month, Congress's big food fight has come to an end as the House passed a bill that overhauls how the government monitors food safety for the first time in more than 70 years.

The House voted in favor of the legislation, 215-144, after the Senate unexpectedly approved the bill by unanimous consent on Sunday. Against all odds, the measure is now on its way to the president's desk.

"This victory has been a long time coming--almost a century, in fact," said Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, who shepherded the bill through committee and on the Senate floor. "It's been that long since our food safety system was last updated."

The Senate originally passed the food safety bill in November on a 73-25 vote after weeks of opposition from Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla. But the House objected to the measure, contending that it included fees that violated the Constitution's requirement that all revenue-raising legislation originate in the lower chamber. The House twice sent back corrected language to the Senate, on one occasion attaching it to a yearlong continuing resolution and on another to the omnibus spending package; but both pieces of legislation were scuttled in favor of a shorter-term funding bill.

On Sunday, however, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid was able to pass the updated bill by unanimous consent, within a House vehicle.

Most interest groups lauded passage of the legislation, which for the first time gives the Food and Drug Administration the authority to order a recall of tainted food. Currently, the FDA must ask producers to pull tainted products from the shelves.

"Americans sitting at their dinner tables should have greater confidence that their food will be safe when this long-overdue law is put into place," said Shelley Hearne, managing director of the Pew Health Group.

But the United Fresh Produce Association, a lobbying group, said it had a "mixed reaction" to the legislation because it included an amendment that gives some exemptions to certain small farms.

"We remain fearful that this profound error will come back to haunt Congress, public health agencies, and even those who thought they would benefit from food safety exemptions," said Robert Guenther, United Fresh's senior vice president for public policy.