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Obama signs food safety bill

President Barack Obamwith first lady Michelle Obamdaughters Mali12 left Sash9 right return White House WashingtTuesday Jan. 4 2011 colder temperatures

President Barack Obama, with first lady Michelle Obama and daughters Malia, 12, left, and Sasha, 9, right, return to the White House in Washington, Tuesday, Jan. 4, 2011, and colder temperatures, after a family vacation in Hawaii. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

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Updated: May 18, 2011 1:50PM

President Obama on Tuesday signed a food safety bill sponsored by Sen. Dick Durbin that hands the Food and Drug Administration new power to battle food borne illness — before it happens.

Durbin, who has championed food safety for more than a decade — starting when he was in the House — said at a news conference in Chicago that the legislation “will change the way we inspect food” allowing mandatory recalls to keep dangerous foods from being sold.

The new law is the first major overhaul of regulations since 1938.

The FDA will have more power to inspect food, make mandatory recalls if a company does not volunteer to stop selling tainted products, trace food outbreaks to its source and step up food inspections.

Durbin became involved in one of his signature issues in 1993 when a Chicago woman, Nancy Donley, wrote him a letter following the death of her 6-year-old son, Alex, who ate a hamburger contaminated with e. coli at a cookout. Donley went on to become a food safety crusader and the president of Safe Tables Our Priority (S.T.O.P.)

“There were so many times in the last 60 days when I thought this bill was dead,” Durbin said of the long battle to get the measure passed. The final votes happened in the just completed lame duck session.

A turning point: a salmonella outbreak last year that led to the recall of more than half a billion eggs. That in turn gave impetus to a coalition of consumer and public interest groups to keep up pressure to get the measure passed.

Congress still has to approve $1.4 billion to fund the bill; the tab is expected to meet opposition from GOP lawmakers.

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