The House Energy & Commerce Committee unanimously passed by voice vote the "Food Safety Enhancement Act of 2009," legislation that would, if passed, overhaul the Food & Drug Administration (FDA)'s power to police food suppliers and producers for signs of contaminated product.

"A series of foodborne disease outbreaks...has not only sickened and killed American consumers, but has laid bare unacceptable gaps in our food safety laws," said committee chair Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA). "Today the Committee will act to close those gaps — and give the Food and Drug Administration new authorities, new tools, and a new source of funding to carry out this vital mission."

Proposed powers for the FDA under the new law include:

• Creation of a registry of all food facilities and importers serving Americans, which would be updated on an annual basis. Affected parties would pay fees to be included in the registry, and would be tagged with unique identification numbers for easier tracking.

• Registered facilities would pay an annual fee of $500 to fund FDA oversight, including inspections, recalls, and certifications for export of food to the U.S.

• The FDA's powers to "quarantine" potentially unsafe food or products from entering geographic areas would be enhanced.

• The FDA would issue regulations requiring every company in a food produce chain — including manufacturers, processors, and transporters — to maintain records for the origin and distribution of the food, and ensure the records are usable and transferable in multiple formats.

• Enhanced safety requirements for infant formula.

• New authority to subpoena records and protect whistleblowers in case of alleged violations of the law.

The annual fee was originally set at $1,000, but was lowered to $500 after concerns were raised that small business farms and independent producers would not be able to pay the fee, while large agribusinesses and farms could do so easily.

Republicans also introduced amendments that would enable the FDA to set aside the inspection procedure on its discretion, and to limit the "quarantine" power to only the minimal amount necessary to prevent an outbreak.

Jean Halloran, director of food safety campaigns for Consumers' Union, said "The bill would go a long way towards preventing outbreaks like the ones we have seen with spinach and peanut butter. [W]e've pushed hard to require high-risk food processors to test for contaminants and tell the FDA when they find them, and we're pleased that this provision was added to the bill approved today."

The nonprofit expressed concern that language ensuring state food safety laws would not be preempted was removed from the legislation, and advocated its return in subsequent drafts of the bill.

Ami Gadhia, Consumers' Union policy counsel, said "We hope that the legislation moves to the House floor quickly and the Senate passes a strong bill so a final package can be sent to the President soon. Congress needs to act before we discover another food contamination that takes consumers' lives."