The Food Safety Modernization Act would increase agricultural inspections and require enhanced industry record-keeping. Wednesday's vote was 74 to 25, with all Democrats and more than a dozen Republicans in support. A final vote is expected in the coming days.
Most policymakers and food safety experts agree that the regulatory system is broken, and that the bill represents the first major step in seven decades to streamline the nation's often unwieldy food safety system. Yet they also agree that lawmakers will need to overcome significant hurdles before the bill could reach the president's desk and be signed into law.
The Senate bill aims to transform the federal Food and Drug Administration from an agency that reacts to food-borne illness outbreaks to one that heads them off by setting new quality standards, increasing inspections and requiring better record-keeping by food producers. It also would give the FDA the power to order food recalls on its own instead of relying on cooperation from industry.
"Let's not go another day without providing the protection that families across America expect and deserve when they buy food," Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), a chief sponsor of the legislation, said Wednesday. "Help ensure that the food on America's tables is safe."
But the measure is far from a perfect fix: The bill doesn't solve the awkward division of responsibility between the FDA and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Gaps in oversight were evident in this year's egg recall.
It also faces challenges as lawmakers seek to amend it.
Citing industry opposition, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said Wednesday that she would be unable to proceed with an amendment to ban the use of bisphenol A, or BPA, the controversial plastics additive, in containers used for baby foods and formulas.
Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) is seeking to protect small farms and family-farm producers from the full scope of the proposed reporting requirements. Tester, whose family runs a wheat farm in Montana, is offering an amendment that would reduce reporting requirements for companies with annual sales of less than $500,000 that sell most of their products directly to consumers and food businesses within 400 miles.
His family's farm would not directly benefit, as his grain is not sold directly to market, his office said Wednesday.
Tester's amendment has large-scale producers and food-safety advocates both worried. They warn that contamination can occur on farm operations regardless of size.
"I have no problem with having states and local health departments dealing with oversight of farmers markets. But the problem is small farmers will be able to sell to wholesalers," said William Marler, a food safety attorney who is representing 105 people sickened by this year's sweeping salmonella outbreak that prompted more than half a billion eggs to be recalled.
"Once that food gets into the wholesale market, there's no controlling it," Marler said.
The Senate legislation also doesn't say how the expanded authority would be funded.
The House passed a version of the legislation in July 2009 that requires food producers and importers to pay a $500 registration fee annually. But the Congressional Budget Office has reported that the fees, which would apply to about 360,000 entities, would not be enough to pay for the new system.
Even if all those obstacles could be overcome, it still might not be enough. On Wednesday, Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) — who has long challenged the Senate's food safety bill — said he was pushing to tack onto the bill a controversial amendment to ban earmarks in the next Congress.
Republicans decided this week to do away with the practice of taking the specially directed funds to their home states and want to pressure Democrats to do the same.
Such an amendment would force Democrats and some Republicans into an uncomfortable vote on earmarks, which have become a symbol among conservatives of government excess. The attempt to include the earmark legislation also could delay and potentially complicate the passage of the otherwise bipartisan bill.
Still, food safety advocates expressed optimism over the fate of a bill that the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee approved last November.
"There's got to be a way to find a happy medium here," said Erik Olson, director of food and consumer product safety programs at the Pew Charitable Trusts. "We're hopeful lawmakers will try to get this through."