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WASHINGTON -- A Senate committee unanimously passed its version of a food-safety bill Nov. 18 in less than two hours, clearing the way for it to reach the Senate floor.

The bill "recognizes that preventive controls are an essential means to improve food safety, and it addresses the need to enhance surveillance, improve emergency response coordination, and heighten the scrutiny of imported foods," Tom Harkin (D-IA), chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor & Pensions Committee, said during the less than two-hour markup. "Importantly, it also recognizes that, while changes to our system must be real and effective, they must not be excessively burdensome."

Under the bill, food companies would need to register with the government, implement food-safety plans, meet performance standards and adhere to mandatory recall rules.

But with few changes made to S. 510, the Food & Drug Administration Food Modernization Act of 2009, the "heavy lifting" in terms of amending the bill is likely to occur later, either before it hits the Senate floor or during conference committee, Robert Guenther, senior vice president of public policy for the United Fresh Produce Association, told The Produce News. "They haven't really addressed the issues yet."

But the Senate committee-passed version does not include items that are red flags in the House version. There are no registration fees, quarantine restrictions or finished product testing in this bill, according to Mr. Guenther.

The FDA would be required to write produce safety rules that are science- based, risk-based and commodity-specific, Mr. Guenther added. It would also require the FDA to study traceability by conducting pilot studies for fresh produce and processed foods.

"Traceability is not just a fresh produce issue," he said.

"We're cautiously optimistic," said Kathy Means, vice president of government relations and public affairs for the Produce Marketing Association. "We're pleased Senator Harkin moved it forward, but we still don't know what's going to happen with health care reform."

Also on Capitol Hill this month, U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) introduced S. 2758, the Growing Safe Food Act, to help small- and medium-sized farmers, food processors and wholesalers implement new food-safety reforms through technical assistance and education.

The USDA would conduct training in the areas of handling practices, manufacturing, produce safety standards, risk analysis, sanitation standards, safe packaging, storage, traceability, record-keeping and food-safety audits. Under this legislation, existing standards for conservation, biodiversity and organic farming must be taken into account in developing the training program.

On Nov. 7, the House of Representatives passed a health care reform bill with a provision to standardize nutrition information on menus provided to diners in large restaurant chains and on vending machines.

By a 220-215 vote, the House passed the Affordable Health Care for America Act (H.R. 3962) with a delicately crafted compromise agreed to by consumer groups and the restaurant industry to supply calorie counts on menus and to provide customers with more nutrition information upon request.

The National Restaurant Association favored the bipartisan agreement because it would replace state and local laws that have dictated varying labeling rules.

The bill would require calorie information on standardized menus, menu boards, drive-through menus, salad bars and buffets.

It would apply to restaurant chains with more than 20 outlets and vending machine operators who manage more than 20 machines.