What Congress Is And Isn’t Doing About Food Safety

The Internet has exposed us to a lot of fresh, new voices on a wide range of topics. The blogs that I read for my healthcare reporting constantly astound me with their depth of sophisticated analysis. But the Internet also has made it possible for people I will charitably call cranks to get a far wider audience than they deserve.

So it is this week, with a flurry of wacky posts on the Food Safety Modernization Act of 2009. The bill was introduced in early March by Senators Dick Durbin (D-IL), Ted Kennedy (D-MA), Judd Gregg (R-NH), and Richard Burr (R-NC). Barry Estabrook, who writes the “Politics of the Plate” column for Gourmet, and who is a passionate defender of sustainable, organic food, has written a succinct post about the Senate bill, which increases funding to the U.S. Food & Drug Administration and makes it possible, for the first time, for the agency to order a recall. A very similar bill, dubbed the Safe FEAST Act (Safe Food Enforcement, Assessment, Standards and Targeting Act of 2009) is making its way through the House. Scientific American’s assessment of both is here.

But, somehow, a crew of bloggers have decided that the bills would mean the end of organic food in America. They are circulating scare posts and a purported news video that looks as if it were made in somebody’s garage with a cellphone camera. I don’t know if they didn’t read the House and Senate bills, or if they were confusing them with a House subcommittee hearing that could lead to an expansion of the National Animal Identification System. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has gotten more than $100 million since 2004 for this voluntary tagging system. Certain interests now want to make the program mandatory, and that could raise costs for small farmers, as farmer Shannon Hayes noted in this op-ed to The New York Times.

Just as with the Organic Food Production Act of 1992, the devil will be in the details and those will come out in the rule making process. It took 10 years before there was a Final Rule with which to enforce the OFPA and that is still a work in progress. The biggest issues of food safety in regard to protecting the people devolve to jurisdiction and an absolutely unwieldy bureaucratic behemoth. This one should be a new beginning that reflects the realities of food production today and the globalization of our food supply, not a cut and paste reshuffling or hide the ball contest for funding.

Our federal legislators have tried before, without success, to address food safety and reduce the senseless split of responsibility between the FDA and the USDA. The first hearing on the NAIS–a very bad idea in its current iteration–won’t be the last. But I don’t see how any harm will come to organic food when the First Lady is serving healthful food at a soup kitchen.

To follow the progress of any of the bills, try using the non-partisan, open source project GovTrack.  Better yet: Shake the hand that feeds you and join the CSA.

3 Responses

  1. Len-

    It is interesting to me that you don’t see a concern about the desire of the federal gov’t to register every farm in the nation. Each farm to re-register every year and subject them to haccp plans, mandatory inspections and including language like this in the bill
    (c) Regulations- Not later than 1 year after the date of the enactment of this Act, the Administrator, in consultation with the Secretary of Agriculture and representatives of State departments of agriculture, shall promulgate regulations to establish science-based minimum standards for the safe production of food by food production facilities. Such regulations shall–

    (3) include, with respect to growing, harvesting, sorting, and storage operations, minimum standards related to fertilizer use, nutrients, hygiene, packaging, temperature controls, animal encroachment, and water;

    interested in your thoughts…

  2. Thanks for the questions Jeff. I vehemently oppose the NAIS. It is not the federal government that wants to register all of the farms. It is an intense lobbying effort from big ag. Without the political will and an enlightened public to insist not the bill will pass. I am engaged in the comment process as well as lobbying my representatives. The place to have the most impact is going to be in the rule making process. Yes it would be better to have a good answer up front but the adept lobbying by big ag makes it an almost moot point.

  3. Alison Rose Levy has a good post on the NAIS on Huffington Post right now and she points out that today is the last day to submit comments to the FDA about the proposal. There’s a link at the bottom of the post to an online form to submit comments and contact your legislator. See: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/alison-rose-levy/having-a-cow-and-eating-i_b_175211.html

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