Eat This, Ministry of Controversy

Dangerous safety? I don’t think so.

S510
Here’s my favorite provision of S-510, otherwise known as the Food Safety Modernization Act, and just approved unanimously by the Senate Sunday: it allows the FDA to recall foods linked to illness. We would no longer have to depend on the kindness of corporations to do the right thing and recall their contaminated products. There would also be more inspections of big food-processing facilities so that maybe there’d be less contaminated product sent out in the first place. This is the first time that the FDA’s food-safety powers have been updated since the 1930s, and it’s about time.

If there’s anybody out there who thinks that large corporate entities are eager to police themselves even if it does get in the way of their bottom line, I have acres of poisoned property to sell you in Niagara Falls.  For more recent examples, we need only look to Westco, who last year continued to ship peanut butter weeks after thousands of people nationwide were already sick from the products. Or the feebly apologetic Iowa mega-farmer who was implicated in last summer’s salmonella epidemic, after he’d been paying millions in violation fines for years. That was cheaper for him than cleaning up his truly horrific operation.

While I have seen a number of hysterical calls to action by alarmist big-gumint libertarian types as well as more reasoned complaints by those who feel the regulations would hamper the ability of small farms to succeed, I have also been looking at this bill and all that’s been written about it*—and I just don’t see what all the yelling is about. There are a number of exemptions and clarifications, applying to “very small businesses,” “limited annual monetary value of sales,” and facilities with “qualified end users.” Farmers who sell most of their harvest directly to restaurants, food co-ops, farm stands, and farmers' markets wouldn't have to abide by the regulations in the legislation (so Michele’s kids’ farm stand is safe). It seems obvious this legislation is aimed at big operations. Maybe the larger small farms will have a few more forms to fill out.

The bill also contains provisions for imported food. Which is fine with me; I am no more eager to ingest Central American pathogens than I am those of the domestic variety.

Oh, and Glenn Beck is worried that the legislation is a secret government stratagem designed to attack the meat industry, which the bill does not affect, as more consumers turn to their regulated vegetables. Ha. Where do you even begin with something that dumb?

On the other hand, Michael Pollan says it’s “the right thing to do.” Maybe he’d also say that the answer is for everyone to grow their own food. But that’s not our reality, and it isn’t likely to be any time soon.

I do not obsess about what’s on my plate or where it came from. I don’t even grow vegetables. (Those of you who have seen my property know why.) But if Pollan said that because he believes a family should be able to buy a carton of eggs or a head of lettuce without their next stop being the emergency room, than I’m with him.

*I read what I could of the bill itself and also referred to interpretations found in the NYTimes, the Washington Post, The Philadelphia Inquirer, the Christian Science Monitor, and others. As Chris notes below, the bill was amended to address small farm concerns. But before that and after that, there was and is a ton of disinformation about the bill being passed around the interwebs.

Posted by on December 21, 2010 at 5:00 am, in the category Eat This, Ministry of Controversy.
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10 Responses to “Dangerous safety? I don’t think so.”

  1. susan harris says:

    Thanks for reading and digesting all that wonky stuff so I don’t have to! S

  2. It is my understanding that all those exemptions for small farmers were added to the bill after the “hysterical calls to action by alarmist big-gumint types” from across the political spectrum.

    And I have to say that anything that passes the Senate unanimously is highly suspect as a giveaway to the corporate sponsors of the government. You want me to believe the rebublican senators agreed to more government regulation of corporate agri-business without some pay off of some kind. It is much easier for the democrats to get their corporate payoff under cover on a bill like this.

    There is no trust left and that is my marginally informed opinion on this bill.

  3. Deirdre says:

    It is also my understanding that the Tester amendment, which exempts small farmers from the regulations, was an afterthought. Amendments are by definition an afterthought. I was one of the many people who wrote my senators to make sure the Tester amendment be added. From what I saw on the Backyardchicken forum, that united a lot of people of every political persuasion. The regulations would have made it prohibitively expensive for small farmers and hobbyists to sell their product. The only food available would have been from megafarms. It would have been the end of the family farm in the USA.
    What politician, regardless of party, wants to go on the record as wanting the death of the family farm or as wanting the American people eating unsafe food? It would be very bad publicity.

  4. Marte says:

    Thanks for this post, Elizabeth. I have not been sure what to think of this bill, having read much of the “pro” and “anti” It is hard to know what to think but overall, this seems to be an improvement. Let’s hope so!

  5. Liisa says:

    Months ago, my alarmist and generally ill-informed neighbor came frantically to tell me that “the government” was trying to take away our right to grow vegetables. I asked him to show me the bill saying that before I would get excited… and I let it drop. Several more times he came to me letting me know it was true, but now he had linked Monsanto and ADM in with the bill. Still he offered no proof.

    Finally, two weeks ago, I saw an email from Food Democracy Now talking about the type of disinformation (misinformation?) linked to S.510. I laughed myself off my desk chair when I put 2 and 2 together.

    I agree with you, Elizabeth: between believing anonymously written cyber-scares and Michael Pollan… For me, that was a no-brainer.

    P.S. I haven’t heard anything yet from my neighbor on his “sources”

  6. anne says:

    I have been inspected by the FDA for the last 3 years in my less-than-5000 case winery. So far the inspections are free, but I don’t expect it to remain that way. They are pretty simple inspections, but annoying, as they come unannounced, and no matter what job I am in the middle of doing, I have to stop and give them my time. They also want to know things that seem pretty irrelevant, like do I have a self-closing bathroom door, and do I have sleeves on my flourescent lights, etc. I also get inspected by the OR Dept of Agriculture, for which I pay $500 per year, and which duplicates the FDA inspection (one year, FDA “borrowed” the ODA inspector and she got to ask questions for both agencies).

    On my small 30-acre orchard, I get inspected by USDA; this is always done during harvest by their requirement, and takes about 30-45 minutes. For this, I pay around $300 per crop. They want to see that I have posted signs saying “No Wildlife in the Orchard”, among other things–some questions are relevant, others seems so misguided and uninformed….anyway, now I wonder if FDA will want to duplicate their efforts there too (at a cost).

    I do think food safety is an issue among large corporate food processing facilities especially, but us small farmers work on such small margins that even “filling out a few (more) forms” takes it’s toll. It’s not the one inspector here or there that’s the problem, it’s the accumulation of compliance factors and the time and money it takes to deal with them that frustrates many of us. Ironically, it’s usually the small farmer who cares to do the right things on their farm. The egg farmer who paid millions of dollars in fines as a cost of doing business? That won’t go away with this new bill, I bet. So I am glad to hear the “small farmer” won’t be subject to the same requirements, but I wonder where they draw the line, size-wise. Also, since I sell my fruit to a packing house, which will fall under their guidelines, I will probably be inspected in order for them to be compliant.

    This program (I read in the WaPo) will cost $1.4 billion dollars over the next 4 years, but they will hire 2000 new inspectors, which means more jobs, which is good.

    Meanwhile, my biggest “compliance factor” will always be Mother Nature.

  7. Thanks very much for this thoughtful post.

  8. bill says:

    Using insulting slang describing the folks who object to the bill shows sort of an elitist tinge making it appear you know better. This is a bad bill. Trace the origins of the bill, look into who wrote it, and compare the provisions to CODEX, then try again to convince us this is a good piece of law. Nonsense.

  9. Dave says:

    Here is the link to S510 and as always the devil is in the details.

    http://thomas.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/z?c111:S.510:

    This bill was originally proposed as the Food Safety and Modernization Act of 2009 — not 2010. It did not move forward because of more pressing issues in Washington D.C. The original version did not allow for any exceptions and included all means of food production and food processing. If you took the time to read the original versions of the bill you would be amazed at the oppressive impact on small business. It did include all means of production or processing. That included your friends who make jelly for the Farmer’s Market, honey stands, vegetable stands and so on. Yes, the horror stories about what the bill proposed were true.

    Remember the amendments were added only after the hue and cry was raised that small producers were going to be put out of business. The last minute amendments give some relief to small producers but do not provide the protection that small growers need. Why should someone who sells eggs at their local Farmer’s Market be subjected to inspections at anytime (that means anytime 24 hours a day, 7 days a week) rather than on an appointment basis? Other industries don’t pay to be inspected. Why should small producers or processors pay for inspections to grow food? After all, our tax money is being used to pay for the new inspectors and the new paperwork — isn’t it?

    If you remember the tomato scare, the part of the story that wasn’t published was that our government knew exactly which producers had the contaminated tomatoes but wouldn’t publish that fact. Instead of removing the known contaminated tomatoes from circulation our government shut down tomato production nation wide and since some of our tomatoes come from other countries, they also shut down tomato imports. As a result tomato growers all over the country took a ripe one on the nose for Uncle. That fiasco was completely unnecessary.

    S 510 is just another way to spend taxpayer money on a good sounding program that makes elected officials look pretty. All of the previous food problems were in large businesses that should have been inspected on a regular basis but the inspectors didn’t do their jobs properly or didn’t inspect at all. S 510 is a huge over reaction to a small problem in food production and it will provide many problems to the small producers in the future.

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