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Senate passes bill to increase food inspection

WASHINGTON — The Senate passed food safety legislation Tuesday following 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. Supporters say passage is critical after widespread outbreaks in peanuts, eggs and produce.

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

President Obama praised passage of the bill and urged the House to act quickly on the legislation.

"We are one step closer to having critically important new tools to protect our nation's food supply and keep consumers safe," he said.

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

Senators eventually agreed to an amendment by Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., 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.

Erik Olson, director of food and consumer product safety at the Pew Health Group, said advocates are pleased with the Senate bill and realize there is not enough time to push for some of the stronger House provisions.

"We think the Senate bill is a major step forward for public health," he said.

The bill's prospects are still 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, the 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 the president's desk.

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