The Food Safety Modernization Act has riled everyone from liberal ‘locavores’ to conservative tea party groups. Here’s a rundown of what’s really in the Senate bill.
Senate Bill 510 – the Food Safety Modernization Act – aims to protect American consumers from picking up contaminated food at the grocery store. So why are critics calling it “the most dangerous bill in the history of the United States”?
The legislation, which is likely to reach a Senate vote after Thanksgiving, would toughen regulations and inspections. It follows well-publicized incidents of contamination in recent years of things that Americans eat every day, including peanuts, spinach, and eggs. Some see the new legislation as necessary to protect not just against accidental or careless contamination, but against an intentional bio-terrorist attack on the USfood supply.
Yet others are concerned that the proposed regulations, which are aimed at large food producers and packagers, could also affect local green thumbs who sell lettuce at the corner farmers’ market. Some also worry that seed stocks will be put under the control of government bureaucrats. Such concerns have riled everyone from liberal “locavores” to conservative tea party groups.
Are the fears hysterical or well founded? We separate the wheat from the chaff:
What is SB 510, and what does it aim to do?
Spurred by recent E. coli and salmonella outbreaks, the food-safety bill would hand the Food and Drug Administration more power to recall tainted products, strengthen inspections of vegetable and meat processors, and demand that producers follow tougher standards for keeping food safe.
While some say that the requirements should apply to everyone who grows food for public consumption, the Senate last week amended the bill to exempt farms making less than $500,000 a year. With the so-called Tester amendment in place, the bill is likely to pass in the Senate. But it could get hung up in the new Republican-controlled House.
“This bill would for the first time give the agency the tools to prevent contaminated food from entering the marketplace instead of scrambling to react in the aftermath of major outbreaks,” writes Carol Tucker-Foreman in south Florida’s Sun-Sentinel newspaper.
What are the strongest arguments for the bill?
Many Americans believe inspection reform is needed to protect the national food supply. “Senators often talk about the importance of addressing so-called ‘kitchen table’ issues – the practical, everyday concerns of working Americans,” Sen. Tom Harkin (D) of Iowa, a co-sponsor, has said. “Well, food safety is literally a ‘kitchen table’ issue.”
Comprehensive reform hasn’t taken place for years, Senator Harkin notes. “It couldn’t be more urgent or absurdly overdue,” he said. “It is shocking to think that the last comprehensive overhaul of America’s food-safety system was in 1938 – more than seven decades ago.”
What are the strongest arguments against the bill?
According to critics, it will create higher compliance costs for smaller producers, putting them at a competitive disadvantage against corporate farmers and producers who can more easily absorb costs, fees, and possible fines.
By Jennifer Kongs in Mother Earth News » 8/19/2010 4:55:29 PM … excerpt from article in Mother Earth News.
The Food Safety Modernization Act
In response to growing concerns over these issues, the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act (S. 510), introduced in March 2009 by Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL), is currently being considered by the Senate. The main goal of the bill — to enhance the power of the FDA to monitor and prevent foodborne illness outbreaks — will be met through four main points of the bill, according to care2.com:
· test for dangerous pathogens
· trace outbreaks back to their sources
· provide the FDA with mandatory food recall authority
· subject foods from overseas to the same standards as those for foods produced in the US
The bill addresses improving capacity to prevent food safety problems, chiefly by expanding the power of the Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) to inspect food-related records and require permits from all food manufacturers and processors (not including farms or restaurants). The HHS would also have the ability to suspend a food facility’s registration if found incompliant. In the case of a foodborne illness outbreak, the ability of the FDA to trace the problem back to its source — and hold the responsible party accountable — is also emphasized. Finally, the bill addresses improving the quality and safety standards imposed upon imported foods.
No one can argue against improving the safety and quality of our food system — but why then are small farm owners, farmers market advocates and other organizations speaking out against this act, and its companion House measure?
Controversy for Small Farms
The vague language of the bill has caused many to object to S.510, fearing that increased power for the FDA and the HHS will also mean increased costs, paperwork and strict regulations that could bring down the axe on the already dwindling numbers of small farms. In a recent action alert, the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) summarizes, “The new regulations could erect new barriers to these important markets for small and mid-scale farmers unable to bear the expense of compliance.”
Consumers Union points out that S.510 contains language that directs the FDA to ensure the regulations don’t conflict with organic requirements and to consider what impacts any new regulations will have on small and diversified farms. In addition, the language of the bill is not yet set in stone — the addition of protections and exemptions for small farms and direct-consumer transactions, including farmers markets, can still be included.
To ease the concerns of small farmers and organizations such as the NSAC, a “manager’s amendment” set forth by the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee has been released and is supported by all four sponsors of the bill. The key differences between this amended bill and the companion House bill include exemptions of farms engaged in low or no-risk processing from new regulations, reduction of unnecessary paperwork and grants for food safety training for small-scale farmers.
The main concern with any such food safety legislation is whether or not it actually solves the real problems inherent within our food system. Will giving an already overloaded government agency the power to create and enforce new food regulations make our industrial, centralized food production system safer and healthier?
Food Safety Modernization Act, which looks likely to pass, would relax standards for farms and ranches selling directly to consumers and pulling in less than $500,000 in annual sales.
By Jule Banville, 11-18-10 » from New West
Sen. Jon Tester’s (D-Mont.) office today announced the inclusion in the Food Safety Bill of an amendment that exempts many of the nation’s smaller farmers and ranchers from meeting some strict food-safety regulations.
Tester co-sponsored the amendment with North Carolina Democrat Sen. Kay Hagan and has been fighting this week on the Senate floor for its inclusion. The Senate voted 74 to 25 to begin debate on the bill, implying strong bipartisan support and good prospects for passage, according to theWashington Post.
Locavore bigwigs Michael Pollan, author of “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” and “In Defense of Food,” and Eric Schlosser, author of “Fast Food Nation,” sent a letter of support, calling the bill “the most important food safety legislation in a generation. The Tester amendment will make it even more effective, strengthening food safety rules while protecting small farmers and producers. We both think this is the right thing to do.”
The Northern Plains Council, a Billings-based organization that lobbies for family-owned farms, also applauded Tester.
“Northern Plains members wrote letters, made phone calls, sent e-mails, met with congressional staff and submitted letters to the editor urging Senator Tester to introduce his amendment and calling for its passage,” the group wrote in a press release.
“The amendment as accepted is a huge win for small businesses and family agriculture,” said Jeanne Charter, a rancher and Northern Plains member in Shepherd, Mont. Tester, she said, is “probably the only person in the Senate with the background to accomplish what he has.”
Although Tester is himself a family-scale grain farmer, his farm doesn’t qualify under the amendment because he does not sell grain directly to consumers.
The amendment (read a summary here) exempts food producers who do sell their goods directly to consumers and have less than $500,000 in annual sales from the bill’s new requirements designed for industrial-scale food producers. Family-scale producers would, however, continue to be overseen by local and state food safety and health agencies.
Negotiators have agreed on the following minor revisions to include Tester’s amendment in the Food Safety Bill:
* New language that gives U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s authority to withdraw an exemption from a farm or facility that has been associated with a food-borne illness outbreak.
* The distance from a facility or farm that is eligible to be a local “qualified end-user” has been reduced from 400 miles to 275 miles, or within the same state.
The larger goal for the bill, also called the Food Safety Modernization Act, is to strengthen the Food and Drug Administration’s ability to prevent food-borne illness. The bill would give the FDA power to mandate recalls and would require better records, testing and tracking from food producers of all sizes.
Critics of the amendment argue there should be no exemptions when it comes to food safety, especially in light of drastic recalls, including this year’s egg scare.
“Small and local food operations have been associated with a number of food safety incidents and recalls over the last decade and are not immune based on size of operation, distance of geography or commodity,” Robert Guenther, senior vice president at United Fresh Produce Association, told the Washington Post.
We deal with consolidation in our energy sector, we deal with consolidation in our banking sector,” Tester said. “We have consolidation in our food industry too. The fact is we need to not encourage that consolidation. I think if we can get more locally grown food—if we can get producers to connect up the consumers eyeball to eyeball—that’s a positive thing. And I don’t want to diminish their ability to do this.
Meanwhile, Politico has listed Tester as No. 2 on the GOP’s political hit list. Late last week, Steve Daines, a Republican businessman from Bozeman,announced his anticipated run against Montana’s junior senator.