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(article, Bill Marler)
p(blue). Editor's note: The top headlines this morning were about the cash for clunkers program and the famous beer gathering at the White House. And — of course — there was plenty of discussion about health care. p(blue). Although it didn't generate big headlines, yesterday's vote in Congress to pass a food-safety bill may have a far-reaching effect. We asked food-safety litigator [/articles/theculinateinterview/bill_marler "Bill Marler"] to give us his read on the vote. Yesterday, after a bit of drama on Wednesday, HR 2749 — The Food Safety Enhancement Act of 2009 — passed overwhelmingly and with serious bipartisan support. It is now headed to the Senate with a likely stopover at a conference committee before it lands on the President’s desk. [%image reference-image float=right width=400 caption='"HR 2749 will . . . increase the overall safety of our food."'] Frankly, I may need to start looking for a new job. As I penned a few days ago, in 2002, in the middle of the recall of 21 million pounds of E. coli O157:H7-tainted ConAgra beef that sickened 50 Americans and killed one grandmother, I wrote an op-ed saying that it was time to “put me out of business.” My argument was that since people generally hate trial lawyers like me, the best way to get rid of me would be to stop poisoning people with contaminated food. Since that outbreak, millions more have been sickened and permanently disabled by food tainted with salmonella, E. coli O157:H7, listeria, campylobacter, and other pathogens. Thousands have lost their lives. In that same time period, Congress had more than 20 hearings on food safety — many attended by my clients — but had not enacted comprehensive legislation. Well, “change,” the official Obama phrase, has come to Capitol Hill. The bill, many times amended (Why? Perhaps this is for a later blog post) and nearly 200 pages long, will greatly strengthen the FDA’s power to regulate 80 percent of the food economy. HR 2749 will give the FDA the power to order food recalls and set record-keeping standards for food facilities. It will mandate increased frequency of inspections and have the fees to pay for them. There will be stiffer criminal penalties, and imports will have to meet the same standard as products produced in the U.S. What it certainly will do is reduce the enormous number of food-borne illness outbreaks, keep kids out of ICUs and off dialysis, and increase the overall safety of our food. HR 2749 is the first meaningful food-safety legislation in 50 years. It was time for the left to stop making perfect the enemy of good. It was time for the right to get out of the way of consumer protection in the name of industry protection. It was time for all of us to acknowledge that ensuring safety in a sprawling, global food system is not free, nor without pain. It was past time for every part of the food economy — regardless of size — to become part of the system, to share in the costs of the system, and to promote the safety of the system. It has always been really long past time to “put me out of business.” p(bio). Bill Marler is a Seattle-based lawyer specializing in food-safety issues. Read more on his blog or follow him on Twitter (@bmarler).