Coming on the heels of a sweeping salmonella scare, a bipartisan group of senators yesterday introduced legislation designed to give the feds the financial and regulatory muscle they need to protect the nation's food supply.

"Over the last year, we've seen major recalls of peanut butter spiked with salmonella, spinach laced with E. coli and chili loaded with botulism," Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said during a press conference held to announce the move. "These are not isolated incidents and are the result of an outdated, underfunded and overwhelmed food safety system. [This] bipartisan bill will improve the [U.S. Food and Drug Administration's] ability to prevent food-borne illness outbreaks and ensure the FDA responds quickly and effectively when outbreaks do occur."

The measure, co-sponsored by Sens. Durbin, Judd Gregg (R–N.H.), Ted Kennedy (D–Mass.) and five other lawmakers, calls for increased government scrutiny of all food processing plants (annual checks of high-risk facilities and inspections of other plants at least once every four years), and empowers the FDA to mandate recalls of dangerous foods if manufacturers ignore its requests to voluntarily pull them.

It also expands FDA access to food company records and test results; allows the FDA to enlist the help of qualified third parties to certify that imported food facilities meet U.S. food safety standards; and requires importers to verify the safety of imported grub. In addition, the FDA would have the authority to deny entry to foods from foreign facilities that refuse to let U.S. inspectors check them out. The package would fork over $825 million to the agency to hire more agents to inspect domestic and foreign food plants.

The legislation was introduced in the wake of one of the largest food recalls in the nation's history stemming from salmonella-tainted peanut butter and paste (used in baked goods and candies) churned out in a contaminated Georgia processing plant owned by Peanut Corp. of America. The FDA in January announced the voluntary recall of peanut products after tracing the source of a nationwide salmonella outbreak to the Blakely, Ga., facility. The agency says that a reported 677 people were sickened in 44 states and nine died after gobbling goods containing the sullied spread.

The FDA has said that PCA knowingly shipped tainted ingredients, showing that it was more interested in the bottom line than in the health and safety of consumers. The Lynchburg, Va.-based company, which declared Chapter 7 bankruptcy last month, is being sued and faces a possible criminal investigation. Top PCA execs last month were called to testify before a House panel, where they invoked their Fifth Amendment right to remain mum lest their words be used against them.

A similar House bill, introduced by Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D–Conn.), would create a separate agency within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to oversee food safety issues that the FDA currently handles. The FDA has been under fire since 2006 for failing to keep the food supply safe following widespread outbreaks linked to tainted spinach, lettuce, jalapenos, beef and now peanut butter, a fave food of U.S. kids.

Bloomberg News reports that Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, whose department is in charge of inspecting slaughterhouses, packing plants and egg farms, supports a single food agency, but has not said where it should be housed.

"Americans spend more than $1 trillion on food each year. When families go to the local restaurant or to the grocery store, or when children go to school, they shouldn't have to worry about whether or not they will become ill from the food they eat," Sen. Gregg said. "Recent outbreaks of food-borne illness and nationwide recalls of contaminated food from both domestic and foreign sources highlight the need for Congress to act to modernize and strengthen our nation's food safety laws."

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