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The FDA Food Safety and Modernization Act and a New Era in Food Politics

2010 December 1

Late yesterday morning, the Senate voted by a clear majority, 73 to 25, to pass S.510, the FDA Food Safety and Modernization Act.  The bill, which was passed by the House in 2009, is the first major legislation to affect the FDA since the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act of 1938. After the two passing bills from the Senate and House are reconciled, President Obama is expected to sign the new Food Safety Act into law.

This is a significant victory for the American people over corporate agriculture interests, and it comes at a time when these interests are more insidious than ever.

A series of key amendments paved the way for the bill’s passing.  In response to overwhelming opposition, which considered the bill to be inaugurating a veritable police state on small farms, Senator Tester (D-MT) proposed an amendment to limit the bill’s scope to farms with an annual income of over $500,000.  This provision, later cosponsored by Senator Kay Hagan and renamed the Tester-Hagan amendment, was enough to appease a number of sustainable agriculture groups as well as consumer interest groups.

The unfortunate casualty of the bill was Senator Dianne Feinstein’s (D-CA) proposed amendment to ban Bisphenol A (BPA) from baby bottles and other food and drink containers.  In the final analysis, industrial food companies’ demands to omit the BPA proviso won out, and the amendment was dropped.

Proponents like Tom Harkin (D-IA), chair of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Workforce Committee, have said that “the Food Safety Modernization Act will bring America’s food safety system into the 21st century.”  Opponents, the chief among them Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK), objected to the bill’s projected cost which stands at an estimated $1.4 billion, as did Senator Orrin Hatch, one of the bill’s original cosponsors.

In a New York Times Op-Ed article published Monday, Michael Pollan (The Omnivore’s Dilemma) and Eric Schlosser (Fast Food Nation) addressed Coburn’s concerns about the bill’s budget, as well as some of his other uninformed attacks:

On the floor of the Senate the week before last, [Coburn] claimed that only 10 or 20 Americans a year die from a food-borne illness, that the government doesn’t need mandatory recall power because “not once in our history have we had to force anyone to do a recall,” and that the annual cost of the new food safety requirements—about $300 million—is prohibitively expensive.  Senator Coburn is wrong on every point. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, some 5,000 Americans annually die from a food-borne illness. Last year, at the height of a nationwide salmonella outbreak that sickened thousands, spread via tainted peanut butter, the Westco Fruit and Nuts company refused for weeks to recall potentially contaminated products, despite requests from the F.D.A.

And as for spending that extra $300 million every year, a recent study by Georgetown University found that the annual cost of food-borne illness in the United States is about $152 billion. In Senator Coburn’s home state, it’s about $1.8 billion. Compared with those amounts, this bill is a real bargain.

I couldn’t have said it better myself.  In regards to food-borne outbreaks, this legislation goes a long way.  The bill lets the FDA test food for pathogens, as well as giving the administration the ability to recall food during outbreaks.  Previously, the best the FDA could do in a situation of large-scale contamination was to recommend such a recall; clearly, a less-than-timely solution to a major public health threat.

The impetus behind these changes is to enable the FDA to prevent dangerous outbreaks from occurring, and if not, to give them the logistical tools to prevent contaminated food from spreading and harming others.  And for the first time, food produced abroad would be brought under the same scope as food produced domestically: capable of culpability and held to the rigorous standards set for American producers.

So far we have addressed primarily what this bill is.  However, in answer to much of the hysteria circulating the digital airwaves, let’s briefly discuss what this bill is not: this is not the end of organic farming.

Many opponents of S.510 have quoted a popular line from an author named Steve Green, who has said that the food safety bill is “the most dangerous bill in the history of the US.”  Interesting.  This line, which appears in nearly every article critical of the bill, is included anonymously, and only after some searching can one put these embittered words to a name.  The article, which has made Mr. Green (whoever he is) famous, makes a number of other hyperbolic assertions, proclaiming “corporate rule,” “food laws—forcing people to globalize,” and “state imposed violence—to snatch the resources of ordinary people.”  This is the kind of fuel that catches fire when put in the hands of a naive audience, one which, as our own J. A. Myerson asserts in his lament of the loss of Russ Feingold in November’s election, “would rather throw tantrums than investigate with any rigor the actual salient facts.”

There are some legitimate answers to the claim that this bill is dangerous, though, that go beyond addressing the corporate propaganda.  Almost a year and a half ago, when similar alarmist claims were circulating about the consequences of the House’s version of the bill, cosponsor Rosa DeLauro (R-CT) drew the attention of her constituents to an oft-overlooked constitutional clause: the federal government can only regulate commerce that crosses state lines.  Therefore, for all the commerce traveling from your backyard to your table, breathe easy: the SWAT teams are backing off.  In cases of illegal “honey laundering,” however, the FDA must be equipped with the tools to carry out an investigation, and pull the tainted product off the market.

Some have also claimed that this bill will affect seed collection and could potentially challenge the way farmers save seeds and conduct their harvest.  For the FDA to properly (and reasonably) protect the American people, a redefinition of some edible seeds as food was necessary:

The FDA considers a seed to be a food if it will be used for human or animal food … For example, seed that is imported for use in animal feeds would require prior notice, as would seed to be used for human food such as sesame seeds or poppy seeds to be used in baking, or oilseeds for processing into edible oils or seed to be used in the production of edible sprouts. If the seed is to be used only for cultivation, prior notice of importation is not required.

The government does not view seeds as a biological weapon, as some claim, any more than they view a sausage, or an egg, or a squash as a biological weapon.  However, the fact remains that each of these substances is edible, and any contaminated food can be used as a biological weapon, a form of poison (Hamlet anyone?).

The benefits greatly outweigh the negatives in the case of this bill.  As Schlosser and Pollan point out, “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.”  To this point, food-safety advocate Kathleen Chrismer offers this astute analysis, closing the book on fear that this will cripple small farms:

Many have drawn comparisons to previous reforms involving food processing and use this as proof that S. 510 will kill small farms and producers. Too much paperwork, too many rules, not enough time, and slim profit margins are common complaints…Too much paperwork? If small producers are not keeping good records of who they sell to, where they sell it, and how much is being sold, then I can see why they operate on slim profit margins. I don’t think it will be easier for a small producer to retain an attorney to defend them when a food-borne illness victim’s attorney files a complaint in court (followed by all the accompanying paperwork), rather than to have a written plan that shows they are taking the steps necessary to reduce the risk of contamination.

All is not lost, as many would have us believe.  In fact, a stronger FDA will go a long way in preventing against deadly outbreaks, caused by the pernicious practices of corporate agriculture.  And at the end of the day, fighting Big Ag will do more to help small farms than this bill will hurt them.

3 Responses
  1. Colin permalink
    December 9, 2010

    Excellent read. Thanks.

  2. December 22, 2010

    parden my spelling i am dislexic,,,i can only hope that what i have read is true…the government let monsanto patent seeds,,the constitution says you can not patent a liveing thing sutch as seeds…i am always leary when i read parts of the bill verses what the people that wrote the bill want me to belive. so now there saying they changed those key parts of the bill that include the small organic farmer and back yard farmer to exclude them from government intervention. corect me if i am rong but as far as i know all those cases of food contamination came from large operations with sloppy standards.with small organic farms your paying a higher price for quality..and i am pritty sure it has been proven that only grain fed cows produce ecoli,not grass fed cows. if raw milk were dangerous there would be no sutch thing as amish people.

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