Peanut butter can kill you. And spinach. And maybe cookie dough. That’s what we’ve learned so far this year, as contaminated foods have claimed lives, caused permanent disabilities and sent thousands of Americans to emergency rooms. The toll has been immense for some time–on average, 5,000 lives are lost each year and 300,000 hospitalizations are required–but this year’s outbreaks of salmonella poisoning linked to bad peanuts and the spread of E. coli bacteria on spinach garnered enough headlines to break a legislative logjam and maybe, just maybe, open the way for the most sweeping reform of the nation’s food safety system in fifty years.

That’s a big deal, not just for consumers but for everyone who worries about the public health systems undermined by the “Republican revolution” Congresses of the 1990s and the neglect of the Bush/Cheney years. No matter how the mangled healthcare reform debate plays out this fall, the reports of death, disease and peanut butter recalls have created an opening that could make 2009 the year a progressive president and Congress enact landmark public health legislation. On the eve of the August recess, the House approved the Food Safety Enhancement Act of 2009 with a bipartisan 283-to-142 vote. That fifty-four Republicans joined 229 Democrats in backing a relatively good bill bodes well for the possibility that the Senate will back bold reform. How bold remains to be seen, however, as a Senate that should be working to muscle up the House bill is instead coming under pressure to weaken it. That can’t be allowed to happen. As Caroline Smith DeWaal, food safety director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, says, Congress must “give consumers a full loaf when it comes to food safety.”

The Senate should act quickly, for reasons of the public good and politics. There is talk about having the Senate put off the food safety debate until after it wrestles with healthcare reform. Bad idea. The outbreak of bipartisanship in the House illustrates that it may be possible to get Democrats and at least some Republicans to stand up to the corporations that want to play politics with public health.

And it must act without pulling punches. “The Food and Drug Administration, which is responsible for the safety of over 80 percent of the foods we eat, has been hamstrung in its effort to better ensure the safety of the food supply by an outdated law and inadequate resources,” says Erik Olson, who directs food and consumer-product safety initiatives for the Pew Charitable Trusts. Olson says the House-backed legislation “will help give the government stronger tools and more resources to safeguard our food supply.” The key word there is “help.” The bill, a product of compromises, negotiations and rewrites that came at the behest of organic farmers–who objected that they, rather than agribusiness, could end up bearing the brunt of the burden imposed by the reforms–left the House as a good, if still imperfect, plan for improving the system. Instead of the inspection of food plants every ten years, on average, the legislation will require more frequent inspections. Instead of cursory reviews of imported foods and food byproducts, the bill makes it possible to establish and enforce strict standards, and it empowers the FDA to trace the sources of food contamination and recall tainted food. That should make it possible for health authorities to respond quickly and efficiently not just to high-profile outbreaks but to the steady toll of food-borne illnesses.

Though the House legislation was crafted by senior Democrats with records as defenders of consumers, like John Dingell and Rosa DeLauro, it was constrained by agribusiness, which succeeded in keeping limits on the FDA’s monitoring of beef, pork and poultry production (which remain under the oversight of the Agriculture Department). And agribusiness dramatically reduced the annual licensing fees for food manufacturers, designed to fund the expansion of FDA inspections. The fees will still generate roughly $160 million, but if the Senate restores the fees to their initially proposed levels, it will more than double that amount. In addition, members of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee should look for smart strategies–grants and waivers for small farms and rules that are flexible enough to guarantee safe food while keeping smallholders on the land–to assure that the burden for financing food safety initiatives falls on multinational firms that operate big processing and packing plants, not on organic farmers and growers who peddle fruits and vegetables from roadside stands and greenmarkets.

The fight for food safety, rooted in the progressive muckraking of a century ago, will not be finished soon. But this fall could be a turning point. Savvy senators like Dick Durbin, who has taken the lead in this struggle, could improve the legislation in their chamber and then work with Dingell, DeLauro and other friends of consumers and working farmers in the House to craft the best bill possible.

DeLauro is right when she says, “This is a good start, but there is more work to be done. I strongly believe that the best way to protect the public health and keep our food free of contagion is to streamline the FDA into two separate agencies within HHS, so that food and drug safety both get the full and comprehensive attention they deserve. But, for now, this bill is a solid first step in creating a comprehensive farm-to-fork safety system that can protect American families from the many dangers of contaminated food.”