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Democrats Work to Salvage Food Safety Bill

Burger with fries in the food court of a shopping mall.
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Food safety legislation stalled by a constitutional snag could be revived as part of a giant year-end budget bill.

The bill to increase the Food and Drug Administration's powers to keep food safe stalled after the Senate overwhelmingly passed it last week. House Democrats said the bill contained fees that are considered tax provisions, and under the Constitution such legislation must originate in the House.

House Democrats are attempting to fix the problem by adding the bill to a catchall spending bill that could be voted on as soon as Wednesday. By tucking the food safety legislation in a larger spending bill that must be passed by the end of the year, Democrats may be able to circumvent Republican objections that delayed passage for months in the Senate.

The $1.4 billion bill would increase Food and Drug Administration inspections of food facilities, place stricter standards on imported foods and give the agency broader authority to order a recall. It also would require larger producers to keep detailed food safety plans and follow stricter standards for keeping food safe. Supporters say passage is critical after widespread outbreaks of salmonella and E. coli in peanuts, eggs and produce.

The bill has widespread bipartisan support and passed the Senate 73-25 on Nov. 30. But Republican Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma blocked the bill for several months, saying he was delaying passage because it wasn't paid for. Supporters were concerned that Republican objections could again trip up the bill in the Senate if the House sent the bill back by itself with the constitutional issue fixed.

Several House Republicans objected to the bill's inclusion in the spending legislation on Wednesday.

Republican Rep. Frank Lucas of Oklahoma, the incoming chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, wrote colleagues saying the process wasn't open to members who had objections. Lucas and other rural Republicans criticized the bill when it was passed by the House in 2009, saying the new FDA oversight would be burdensome for farmers.

"If the Senate missed such an obvious issue when it passed S. 510, it makes us wonder what else it missed," Lucas and Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, said in the letter, referring to the constitutional glitch in the Senate bill.

Supporters say they are encouraged that almost three-quarters of the Senate supported the bill, despite the procedural hurdles.

"We're pretty cautiously optimistic that whatever the vehicle is there's pretty broad support for moving the bill," said food safety advocate Erik Olson, director of food and consumer product safety at the Pew Health Group.