Food Safety Legislation Editorial and Update – The bad, the Ugly, the Inevitable, and the Uncertain

The following represents my personal opinion regarding the issue of food safety legislation and the many factors which surround it, and should be considered editorial. I have been following the debate closely, and though my opinions are not uninformed, I will also freely admit that I don’t know everything. I work very hard to present information on beginningfarmers.org in an impartial way, and seek to avoid ideological bias, but this particular issue is a hot button for almost everyone, including me. I simply ask that if readers take issue with what I say here, that they post their own ideas, so that everyone has the benefit of hearing dissenting views.

A lot of emotion currently surrounds the issue of food safety legislation for farmers, food processors, activists, and the general public alike. My take on the issue, at least the short version, is as follows:

The U.S. food supply is generally fairly safe. There are a lot more dangerous things than eating which most of us do every day. But there are also some bad actors in the food production and processing sectors who are greedy and sloppy, and though there are sometimes unpredictable factors which can lead to food contamination, most of the problems we have seen over the past few years were preventable. Although outbreaks of food-borne illness have often been blamed on small and organic producers, my own readings, and my understanding of pathology and bacterial epidemiology (which I studied in graduate school) lead me to believe that food contamination problems are far more likely to be caused by large industrial processors cutting corners, and confinement feeding operations which squeeze too many animals together in too small a space (for more information on this issue see http://www.ncifap.org/, http://snipurl.com/tzub8, and http://snipurl.com/tzudx).

Whether or not one believes that new food safety regulations are necessary, the hysteria that is caused by food contamination outbreaks, fed by our obsession with fear-based cable and network news programming has produced a situation in which legislators feel they have no choice but to act. The political reality is that our elected officials are going to go through with some kind of legislation because average people are worked up and fed up with outbreaks of food-borne illness. They also tend to be poorly educated about the realities of the food system, and are either unwilling, or incapable of avoiding the kinds of industrial food products which tend to cause these problems in the first place.

Legislators are not only listening, they see ‘improving food safety’ as an overwhelmingly beneficial political position to take. Dealing with the core issues in our food system: (industrialization, confinement, demand for cheap food, the feeding of animal products and grains to ruminants, the overuse of antibiotics, etc.) are such big systemic issues protected by such powerful lobbies, that the only way the issue of food safety is ever really going to be tackled in the short term is through more government oversight and bureaucracy.

I recognize that to many small independent farmers and processors, the specter of more invasive government regulation and oversight stinks worse than the excrement lagoons of our nation’s largest hog and dairy operations in August. But at this point, food safety legislation looks like an inevitability. The only question is what it will look like.

Obviously my own sympathies are with the small farmers and processors, and I fear that their burden will be far heavier (in relative terms) than that of the industrial producers and processors from whom I have suggested that the bulk of the problems originate. At the same time there has also been a fair amount of disinformation and doomsday prophesying spreading through the grapevine and across the internet.

Like the National Animal Identification System (NAIS) which I don’t have time to address here, Food Safety Legislation may well put an unfair burden and additional government oversight on those (small producers) who can least afford it and who, as I have suggested, are least responsible for the problems. But the gravest of the concerns I have heard will are simply fallacies (food safety legislation will not make organic farming or home gardening illegal).

A number of small but capable grassroots organizations and conscientious individuals have been working hard to make lawmakers understand the disproportional burden that increased oversight could put on the small farmers and processors who are seldom the source of the problems that the new laws seek to ameliorate. Along with the public outcry over the issue (sometimes worst-case scenario fears, even if they are overblown, have been useful catalysts for populist political action), these organizations have been successful in prompting a number of legislators to put forth provisions protecting small and organic producers and processors.

But the bottom line is that we still don’t know what the final outcome will be. Chances are, small farmers and processors won’t come out unscathed. But I am hopeful that with continued diligence and political engagement, the damage will at least be limited.

The Community Food Security Coalition (CFSC) has put together one of the better overviews of the issues surrounding current efforts to enact national food safety legislation, including information on how to make your opinions heard. I have included it below.

Please send comments and other sources of information, dissenting opinions, rants, or complaints using either the comment tab above, or the contact form below, and I will be happy to post them.

– Taylor Reid

From CFSC (http://www.foodsecurity.org/policy.html#foodsafety):

HR 2749

H.R. 2749, The Food Safety Enhancement Act, passed the House on July 30, 2009. The House Agriculture Committee was able to negotiate some changes to the bill on behalf of Ag and Farmers, but many advocates do not feel that these changes are enough. It is unclear when the Senate will take up the issue of Food Safety (S. 510, the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act), but it is unlikely to happen before the passage of Health Reform.

Below are some of the latest updates and news surrounding the Food Safety Issue:

CFSC will send out an Action Alert asking for your help. Sign up for our Policy Updates to receive action alerts.

For More Information on Food Safety Legislation you can visit the following organizations working on this issue:

HR 875

There are a lot of rumors floating around about HR 875, a food safety bill introduced by Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT). Rep. DeLauro is a great friend of our issues, and despite rumors, her husband never worked for Monsanto. For the real truth on HR 875, download the Myths & Facts of HR 875 (below), or read this helpful post at Ethicurean.com.
Myths & Facts of HR 875, the Food Safety Modernization Act [PDF]

CONTACT ME:

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