With a recent recall on eggs linked to a multi-state salmonella outbreak, the Senate hearings on the proposed Food Safety Modernization Act could not come at a timelier juncture. The bill’s main goal is to increase the regulatory power of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in order to ensure a safer food supply. Small farmers and several advocacy organizations, however, have taken up arms against the bill, claiming the proposed regulations threaten to further strain small farmers’ ability to make ends meet.
Upton Sinclair first exposed the dangerous truths hidden within our nation’s food processing industry in his novel The Jungle. Since the 1906 publication of Sinclair’s exposé, regulations imposed upon the food industry have been implemented to protect us from foods containing toxic chemicals or colored with heavy metals, including lead and mercury — although a strong argument could be made that several candy and soda companies missed that memo.
Over the past century, the increased centralization of our food production — accompanied by a growth in foreign food imports — has once again left our nation’s health at the hands of mostly unregulated food processors. Currently, the FDA has surprisingly little control over food safety: Our food industry is self-regulated, which means the FDA is not only incapable of demanding a recall of contaminated food products, but they also lack the power to punish the companies that produce such products. As a result, more than 350,000 Americans are hospitalized due to food-related illnesses each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).
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?
What About You?
Is this a step in the right direction or a waste of time? Make your opinion heard by posting a comment below and contacting your senator to tell him or her what you think about S.510 and the “manager’s amendment.” You can locate your senator using this directory — they’ll be back in office to vote in September after the August recess.
Jennifer Kongsis the Managing Editor at MOTHER EARTH NEWS magazine. When she’s not working at the magazine, she’s likely working in her garden, on the local running trails or in her kitchen instead. You can find Jennifer on Twitteror Google+.
Photo by iStockPhoto/Simon Podgorsek