Senate revives and passes once-dead food-safety bill

WASHINGTON — A bill that would overhaul the nation's food-safety laws came back to life Sunday as Senate Democrats struck a deal with Republicans that helped overcome a technical mistake made three weeks ago and a filibuster threat that seemed likely to scuttle the legislation.

After a weekend of negotiations, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., reached a deal with Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., that the GOP would not filibuster.

Without notice and in a matter of minutes Sunday evening, the Senate approved the bill by unanimous consent, sending it to the House, where passage is expected. President Obama has said he would sign the legislation, which would give the government far-reaching authority to set and enforce safety standards for farmers and food processors.

It was a last-minute change for the legislation, which seemed all but dead Sunday afternoon.

The legislation would affect all whole and processed foods except meat, poultry and some egg products, which are regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, a main sponsor of the bill, called Sunday's vote a "critical victory" that would "give Americans one of the best holiday gifts they can receive this year — the assurance the foods they are eating are safer."

The measure had passed the House more than year ago with strong bipartisan support. It cleared the Senate three weeks ago.

But the day after the Senate vote, House leaders flagged a problem — the Senate version appeared to violate a constitutional provision that requires new taxes to originate in the House rather than the Senate.

The section in question would have imposed fees on importers, farmers and food processors whose food is recalled because of contamination. The mistake essentially nullified the Senate vote.

Unlike the current system, which relies on government inspectors catching contamination, the new measure would require manufacturers and farmers to come up with strategies to prevent contamination and then continually test to make sure they work.

It also would give the Food and Drug Administration the authority to recall food and access to internal records at farms and food-production facilities.

The bill would require importers to verify that products grown and processed overseas meet U.S. safety standards.