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October 25, 2014

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Senate improves food safety screenings

Chalk one up for the spirit of compromise: the Senate actually agreed on something. Something kind of complicated.

Late last night, the Senate passed a bill to step up the safety of the country’s food screening system. And they did it by unanimous consent, meaning nobody piped up with a single objection to the bill — a procedure that’s so devoid of road bumps, in fact, that the Senate rank-and-file don’t even have to trek into the chamber to cast an in-person vote.

But, if it sounds like de ja vu all over again — well then gold star for you, Policy Racket reader, you’ve been paying close attention; and you’re right.

The Senate actually passed a bill to strengthen the FDA’s ability to police foodstuffs, both products produced domestically and those imported, last month by a fairly impressive margin of 74-25. But then they had to scrap it and start again, because of a little thing called the Constitution.

What the Senate passed was a bill numbered S. 510 — that “S.” means it originated in the Senate (when bills originate in the house, they start with “H.R.”). And for the food safety bill, that was a no-no.

Because the bill included a mechanism for the FDA to collect fees, that made it a revenue measure. And as Article 1, Section 7 of the Constitution states, “All bills for raising Revenue shall originate in the House of Representatives.” Whoops.

House leaders objected on procedural, precedent-setting grounds — with House Majority Whip Steny Hoyer also joking to reporters soon after that House Democrats wouldn’t have made such a mistake, after being lectured about the Constitution by the Tea Party so emphatically during the midterm elections.

So the Senate went back to the drawing board, working that provision out of it with the help of an amendment penned by Montana Democrat Jon Tester.

And now, the bill is passed — for real this time. That means more money for the FDA to put into inspections, recall tainted food shipments, and punish bad-actor companies. At present, the FDA only inspects about 24 percent of domestic food facilities every year — and less than one percent of imports.

“Our food safety system has not been updated in almost a century,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said Monday. “This legislation will improve on our current food safety system by giving the FDA the resources it needs to keep up with advances in food production and marketing, without unduly burdening farmers and food producers.”

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