The dilemma of how to regulate food safety in a way that prevents problems caused by industrialized agriculture but doesn’t wipe out small diversified farms is not new and is not easily solved. And as almost constant food safety problems reveal the dirty truth about the way much of our food is produced, processed and distributed, it’s a dilemma we need to have serious discussion about.
Most consumers never thought they had to worry about peanut butter and this latest food safety scandal has captured public attention for good reason – a CEO who knowingly shipped contaminated food, a plant with holes in the roof and serious pest problems, and years of state and federal regulators failing to intervene.
It’s no surprise that Congress is under pressure to act and multiple food safety bills have been introduced.
Two of the bills are about traceability for food (S.425 and H.R. 814). These present real issues for small producers who could be forced to bear the cost of expensive tracking technology and recordkeeping.
The other bills address what FDA can do to regulate food.
A lot of attention has been focused on a bill introduced by Rep. Rosa DeLauro (H.R. 875), the Food Safety Modernization Act. And a lot of what is being said about the bill is misleading.
Here are a few things that H.R. 875 DOES do:
-It addresses the most critical flaw in the structure of FDA by splitting it into 2 new agencies –one devoted to food safety and the other devoted to drugs and medical devices.
-It increases inspection of food processing plants, basing the frequency of inspection on the risk of the product being produced – but it does NOT make plants pay any registration fees or user fees.
-It does extend food safety agency authority to food production on farms, requiring farms to write a food safety plan and consider the critical points on that farm where food safety problems are likely to occur.
-It requires imported food to meet the same standards as food produced in the U.S.
And just as importantly, here are a few things that H.R. 875 does NOT do:
-It does not cover foods regulated by the USDA (beef, pork, poultry, lamb, catfish.)
-It does not establish a mandatory animal identification system.
-It does not regulate backyard gardens.
-It does not regulate seed.
-It does not call for new regulations for farmers markets or direct marketing arrangements.
-It does not apply to food that does not enter interstate commerce (food that is sold across state lines).
-It does not mandate any specific type of traceability for FDA-regulated foods (the bill does instruct a new food safety agency to improve traceability of foods, but specifically says that recordkeeping can be done electronically or on paper.)
Several of the things not found in the DeLauro can be found in other bills – like H.R. 814, the Tracing and Recalling Agricultural Contamination Everywhere Act, which calls for a mandatory animal identification system, or H.R. 759, the Food And Drug Administration Globalization Act, which overhauls the entire structure of FDA. H.R. 759 is more likely to move through Congress than H.R. 875. And H.R. 759 contains several provisions that could cause problems for small farms and food processors:
-It extends traceability recordkeeping requirements that currently apply only to food processors to farms and restaurants – and requires that recordkeeping be done electronically.
-It calls for standard lot numbers to be used in food production.
-It requires food processing plants to pay a registration fee to FDA to fund the agency’s inspection efforts.
-It instructs FDA to establish production standards for fruits and vegetables and to establish Good Agricultural Practices for produce.
There is plenty of evidence that one-size-fits-all regulation only tends to work for one size of agriculture – the largest industrialized operations. That’s why it is important to let members of Congress know how food safety proposals will impact the conservation, organic, and sustainable practices that make diversified, organic, and direct market producers different from agribusiness. And the work doesn’t stop there – if Congress passes any of these bills, the FDA will have to develop rules and regulations to implement the law, a process that we can’t afford to ignore.
But simply shooting down any attempt to fix our broken food safety system is not an approach that works for consumers, who are faced with a food supply that is putting them at risk and regulators who lack the authority to do much about it.
You can read the full text of any of these bills at http://thomas.loc.gov
Senior Food Organizer
Food & Water Watch
1616 P St. NW Suite 300
Washington, DC 20036