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Sen. Amy Klobuchar, Published December 26 2010

Klobuchar: Food bill had its heroes

As we celebrate the holiday season, there are countless unsung heroes among us who deserve our recognition, but too often go unnoticed.

In Minnesota, we are fortunate to have several heroes who played a major role in the passage of the Food Safety Modernization Act that will be signed into law before the end of the year.

One of these heroes is Jeff Almer. By now, you may have heard of the tragic case of Shirley Almer, a 72-year-old grandmother from Perham, Minn., who survived two bouts of cancer only to be killed in December 2007 by eating a piece of toast with peanut butter that was contaminated with deadly salmonella bacteria.

Her son, Jeff, was not going to let his mother’s death be in vain. So he became a vocal and passionate advocate for stronger, more effective food safety laws.

Thanks in part to Jeff’s tireless advocacy over the past three years, including testimony at several hearings in Washington, the Food Safety Modernization Act will now become law, representing the first major overhaul of America’s food safety laws since 1938.

But Jeff was not alone.

Minnesota food companies like Hormel, Schwan’s and Supervalu – who were also strong supporters of this bill and played a critical role in passing this bill into law – are also deserving of our appreciation.

In addition to being the sixth-largest agricultural producer in the country, Minnesota is home to some of the world’s largest and most successful food-processing companies. They have their own safety standards that are among the strictest in the industry. Brand-name food companies don’t want to sell contaminated products. It hurts their bottom line. It hurts their reputation. But most importantly for them, it puts their customers at risk. These companies welcome the new law because they know it’s aimed at the bad guys who try to sell bad food, like the peanut factory in Georgia responsible for the salmonella outbreak. This otherwise obscure peanut factory caused an estimated $1 billion in damage to America’s food industry.

In short, bad food is bad for business.

To ease the regulatory burden on smaller producers, the law exempts those with annual revenue of less than $500,000 and those that sell directly to consumers, restaurants and grocery stores within a regional market.

I was an original co-sponsor of the Food Safety Modernization Act, and it includes a provision that I authored with Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., that will improve the ability of federal, state and local officials to detect and quickly trace outbreaks back to their source. It is modeled on the successful track record of a joint initiative by the Minnesota Department of Health, Minnesota Department of Agriculture and the University of Minnesota School of Public Health. This new law was long overdue.

Although it came too late to save her, this food-safety law is Shirley Almer’s life-saving legacy to the rest of us.

Sen. Klobuchar, D-Minn., sits on the Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee.