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Public health advocates press Senate to pass food safety bill

Ad campaign targets Nev., Ky., constituents

By Lyndsey Layton
Washington Post / July 12, 2010

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WASHINGTON — A year after House Democrats and Republicans overwhelmingly approved legislation to improve food safety, public health advocates are growing frustrated that the Senate has yet to take up the bill.

A coalition of food safety groups tried to turn up the pressure last week on Senate majority leader Harry Reid, Democrat of Nevada, and minority leader Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky, running newspaper ads in the lawmakers’ two states featuring constituents who fell seriously ill from food poisoning. The ads urged Reid and McConnell to move the bill to the Senate floor and pass it.

“Time is short — there are not a lot of legislative days on the calendar and we’re seeing [food] recalls every week,’’ said Erik Olson, with the food and consumer product safety programs at Pew Health Group. “There is obviously a lot of interest in making sure folks know this bill has broad public support and that there is really no reason not to move this. It would show that Washington can get something done.’’

Pew Charitable Trusts released results of a poll conducted in Nevada, where Reid is facing a tough reelection battle, , finding that 71 percent of voters think the Senate should pass the bill.

On Wednesday, President Obama said in a prepared statement that he supported passage of the Senate bill and that it would give the government the tools it needs to ensure food safety. The bill, which would be the first major change to food safety laws in 70 years, is designed to give the Food and Drug Administration vast new regulatory authority over food production. It places greater responsibility on manufacturers and farmers to produce food free from contamination — a departure from the country’s reactive tradition, which has relied on government inspectors to catch tainted food after the fact.

The legislation follows a wave of food-borne illnesses over the past four years, involving products as varied as spinach and cookie dough, which has shaken consumer confidence and made the issue a priority for many lawmakers and the White House.

Food illnesses affect 1 in 4 Americans and kill 5,000 each year, according to government statistics.