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Obama gets food safety overhaul after House's OK

The House, in a 215-44 vote Tuesday, passed a measure to overhaul the nation's food safety laws, and President Obama is expected to sign it into law as soon as today.

The legislation would give the government broad new powers to inspect processing plants, order recalls and impose stricter standards for imported foods. The $1.4 billion bill would also require larger farms and food manufacturers to prepare detailed food safety plans and tell the Food and Drug Administration how they are working to keep their food safe at various stages of production.

The vote marked the final hurdle for a bill that cleared an unusual number of obstacles, despite receiving bipartisan support and backing from a wide array of groups across the political spectrum, from Consumers Union to the Chamber of Commerce.

"This is a big victory for consumers that finally brings food safety laws into the 21st century," said Jean Halloran of Consumers Union. "This win is a powerful testament to the people across the country who came to Washington to tell their lawmakers how contaminated food had killed their loved ones or left them horribly sick. This win is for them and all Americans."

But some critics said the new legislation will expand the reach of the federal government without making food safer. "The federal food bureaucracy needs to get smarter and better coordinated, not more omnipotent," said Rep. Tom Price, R-Ga.

The proposal survived filibuster threats in the Senate, constitutional confusion, and tensions between big agricultural companies and the burgeoning local food movement.

The setbacks repeatedly sent the bill back to both chambers, where new challenges arose. In the end, the House voted on it three times and the Senate twice.

The legislation will affect all whole and processed foods except meat, poultry and some egg products, which are regulated by the Department of Agriculture.

It is the first major change to the nation's food safety laws since 1938. It comes after a series of national outbreaks of food-borne illnesses linked to a wide variety of foods, including spinach, peanuts and eggs.

Unlike the current system, which relies on federal officials to trace the source of an outbreak to its origin after consumers have become ill, the new requirements are designed to create a system in which manufacturers and farmers come up with strategies to prevent contamination, then continually test to make sure they work.

The bill includes an exemption for small farmers and food processors, and those who sell directly to the public at farmers' markets and farm stands. That exemption was pushed by advocates for local food.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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