Why You Should Care About the Food Safety Modernization Act

BlogHer Original Post

Inedible eggs! Scary spinach! Panic-inducing peanut butter! When a long string of staple foods become key players in tales of terror, you know we've got something wrong with our food safety system. That's why right now, a Senate bill called Food Safety Modernization Act (S. 510) is getting so much attention. And if you'd like to one day enjoy your peanut butter and jelly sandwiches in peace without fear of paralysis or death, you should be paying attention to it too.

Here's the skinny on the Food Safety Modernization Act: This bill, a version of which has passed in the House a year ago, would basically give the Federal Drug Administration more power. Right now, the FDA can't even force a food company to recall contaminated food. If the bill's passed, the FDA would be given that power -- as well as the power to set higher quality standards, perform more frequent inspections of food facilities, and demand better record-keeping from food producers, according to the L.A. Times and New York Times.

Giving the FDA these enforcement powers is what environmental, health, and consumer advocate groups have been asking for years. Most recently, the Union of Concerned Scientists released a report showing that the FDA and USDA are overinfluenced by industry and political pressures. These sorts of findings help explain why so many food safety issues remain unaddressed. Francesca Grifo of the Union of Concerned Scientists told Living on Earth that of the 1,700 FDA and USDA employees who took the survey, 507 respondents said they had personally experienced at least one incidence of political interference. "Now, that's not heard about, read about, thought about, that's personally experienced. And that's a very big number."

It's gotten so bad that even the industry groups are now in strong support of the Food Safety Modernization Act, basically calling on the FDA to get tougher on them! Why? Recalls are bad for business. As the New York Times explains it:

Just a few years ago, many manufacturers were opposed to expanding the F.D.A.’s food authority. But when a relatively small producer sold contaminated spinach several years ago, the entire industry’s crop was thrown out, resulting in huge, industrywide losses. And once a food contamination scare affects a product, sales are slow to return to normal.

This means the bill has the support of industry groups -- as well as that of environmental, health, and consumer organizations, the Obama administration, and both democratic and republican senators.

So why hasn't the bill passed already? Well, to start, the bill isn't without controversy. For one, the Food Safety Modernization Act wouldn't resolve one of the major food safety issues we already know of -- the USDA and FDA's "confusing separation of powers," as the L.A. Times calls it:

The USDA regulates the quality of eggs still in their shells; it also inspects liquid, dried and frozen egg products. The FDA is responsible for the safety of eggs still in their shells, but until recently it could intervene only after problems became evident. So neither agency was proactive about examining the production facilities operated by Wright County Egg and Hillandale Farms of Iowa, where federal inspectors recently found giant manure piles, rodents and maggots.

Even if the Food Safety Modernization Act passes, this separation of powers issue won't be resolved. As the New York Times points out:

Inspectors from the Agriculture Department regularly visited the Iowa egg facilities to grade the eggs and noted unsanitary conditions but never told the F.D.A. about them. That kind of poor communication and coordination between the government’s main food agencies is routine, and the legislation stalled in the Senate would do little to correct them.

That said,while the Food Safety Modernization Act obviously won't solve all the food safety problems in one fell swoop, it will resolve many of them. Which brings us to the second controversy about the bill: The allegation that the Food Safety Modernization Act will hurt small, local farmers, even putting some organic farmers out of business!

How could a bill encouraging food safety potentially hurt organic farmers? Well, basically the bill works by giving the FDA more power to regulate food companies -- so the concern is that some of those regulations, while appropriate for regulating gigantic corporations, are far too restrictive and onerous for small-scale farmers and food producers who don't even have the sorts of big-company related food safety problems that the giants do.

The good news is that a number of amendments to the Food Safety Modernization Act have addressed this issue by giving more flexibility in the rules for small scale producers, exempting food sold at the farmers market from labeling requirements, providing competitive grants program for food safety training, and more, as Helena Bottemiller at Food CEO details in her summary of "favorable changes for small-scale, sustainable agriculture" made to the bill.

Those amendments have assuaged the concerns of many, though not all, groups concerned about small scale producers. That explains why many environmental groups and organizations that support local, organic, and sustainable agriculture have come out in loud support of the Food Safety Modernization Act. Perhaps most notably, Slow Food USA -- a nonprofit dedicated to local, sustainable food -- has an active campaign and petition drive going in support of the Food Safety Modernization Act.

Other notable health nonprofits behind the bill include Environmental Working Group and Food and Water Watch, who are among the many organizations that have come together to form a coalition called Make Our Food Safe that calls for the Senate to pass the food safety bill.

Unfortunately, the Food Safety Modernization Act is currently languishing in a Senate session that's packed with a whole lot of other bills vying for the lawmakers' attentions. Tom Philpott at Grist says the bill is dead, while Sarah Parsons at Change.org says it's not dead until we let it die. Helena Bottemiller at Food CEO guesses that the bill "probably has a fifty-fifty chance of passing before the end of the year."

Debate continues in the senate -- and I tend to think bills often get prematurely declared dead by people who either want the bill to die or who are feeling discouraged by the fight -- which for me means if you want this bill to pass, you need to put pressure on your senators now.

What are your thoughts on the Food Safety Modernization Act?

Photo by Kate Ter Haar

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