The Food Safety Modernization Bill

November 30th, 2010 | Simcha Weinstein | Comments Off on The Food Safety Modernization Bill

The Senate today passed the Food Safety Modernization Bill. According to Michael Pollan:  This bill provides the best opportunity in a generation to improve the safety of the American food supply. This legislation is by no means perfect. But it promises to achieve several important food safety objectives, greatly benefiting consumers without harming small farmers or local food producers. The bill would, for the first time, give the F.D.A., which oversees 80 percent of the nation’s food, the authority to test widely for dangerous pathogens and to recall contaminated food. The agency would finally have the resources and authority to prevent food safety problems, rather than respond only after people have become ill. The bill would also require more frequent inspections of large-scale, high-risk food-production plants.

Last summer, when thousands of people were infected with salmonella from filthy, vermin-infested henhouses in Iowa, Americans were outraged to learn that the F.D.A. had never conducted a food safety inspection at these huge operations that produce billions of eggs a year. The new rules might have kept those people — mainly small children and the elderly — from getting sick.

The law would also help to protect Americans from unsafe food produced overseas: for the first time, imported foods would be subject to the same standards as those made in the United States.

You would think that such reasonable measures to protect the health and safety of the American people would have long since sailed through Congress. But after being passed by the House of Representatives more than a year ago with strong bipartisan support, the legislation has been stuck in the Senate. One sticking point was the fear among small farmers and producers that the new regulations would be too costly — and the counter-fear among consumer groups that allowing any exemptions for small-scale agriculture might threaten public health.

Those legitimate concerns have been addressed in an amendment, added by Senator Jon Tester of Montana, that recently was endorsed by a coalition of sustainable agriculture and consumer groups.

This new legislation will give the FDA the power to order companies to recall food. Currently, the FDA has no such authority (amazing), and food is only recalled because the company at fault makes that decision, typically because of government and consumer pressure. The FDA, however, does not oversee most meat and poultry. This is handled by the USDA, whose regulations are not changing.

Initially this bill was going to impose the same regulatory standards on all food producers – the same regulations for small, independent, and family-owned farms as for large Agribusiness. Regulatory burdens typically hit the smaller producer much harder as they have fewer resources to deal with the bureaucracy that ensues and can be more easily forced out of business. Smaller farms argue that it is typically the larger farms that have the most incidents and outbreaks. This seems to be a pretty fair assessment since most all major food-borne illness outbreaks and recalls have occurred within the large, industrial food system.

But last week an amendment was added to the bill by John Tester (D-Mont). His amendment states that if a farmer sells less than $500,000 in produce a year, and sells most of it to consumers, restaurants, or grocery stores (rather than brokers or processors) within his own state or within 275 miles, then it would be exempt from the new regulations. And, if products from any given small farm get anyone sick, the FDA reserves the right to revoke its exemptions. According to Tester, “The folks who sell their produce directly to the local market—whose customers can see them eyeball-to-eyeball and know where their food is coming from—shouldn’t be forced to deal with expensive new regulations aimed at big industry-scale producers.”

While this bill is by no means perfect (very little legislation actually is) it is a major step in ensuring that our food supply is safer. Of course, if we really want to get serious about the safety of our food supply, then we need to include how our food is grown and cultivated as part of the discussion. As it stands now, growers of natural and organic beef, for example, see the exclusion of antibiotics administered to their cattle as a sign of how healthy and safe their product is. On the other hand, conventional cattle growers see the use of antibiotics as a step to insure that their beef are, in fact, healthy and safe. Until we redefine what “safe” actually means, we can take steps to insure that our food is safe from pathogens and contamination, but not necessarily safe from pesticides and harmful drugs that are commonly used in our food supply. As long as a vegetable that is boiled and vacuum-packed into a can is seen as safer than a raw vegetable, we still have some hurdles to overcome. But, in the meantime, it will be interesting to see what happens with the Food Safety Modernization Bill.