Originally sparked by a stunning salmonella outbreak tied to peanut butter in 2009, and more recently spurred by the equally frightening salmonella outbreak in eggs thus summer, the Food Safety Modernization Act finally appears hours from a final vote. The Senate is set to vote Monday night on the bill, and signs suggest bipartisan support and likely passage. The bill would impose new safety protocols and stronger FDA oversight, particularly over fresh produce.
For much of the proposed Act’s legislative life, the battle has, for the most part, not pitted major food industry members against consumer groups. Rather, as reported in the San Francisco Chronicle, the battle has been "a ferocious two-year battle that has pitted the small-farm, locavore food movement against large growers and food safety interest groups."
The apparent outcome of this battle is the so-called "Tester" amendment, (Sen. Jon Tester, (D)) which "would exempt small farms and processors from federal oversight, leaving them under state and local food safety regulation." Larger food industry interests believe that the amendment would undercut the impact of the bill.
Western Growers, representing California fruit and vegetable farmers, along with 19 other large produce groups, withdrew their support last week, accusing Tester of waging "ideological war" against large farms by implying that only small farms grow genuine food.
Food safety advocates, including The Pew Foundation’s Pew Health Group and even renowned locaveore Michale Pollan have endorsed the legislation.
"We’ve got a tremendous food safety problem tied to the consolidation of agriculture," Pollan said, citing last summer’s salmonella outbreak at two egg producers in Iowa that sickened hundreds of people across 14 states and led to the recall of half a billion eggs. "If states are going to drop the ball on something like that, the feds need to step in."
Pollan said outbreaks "tend to be occurring at very large-scale operations which introduce unique risks, and to leave that completely unregulated carries enormous risks for all of us."
In my opinion, "small" farmers opposing the bill are overestimating the actual impact that FDA oversight will have on their farms. Even with expanded powers, FDA’s budget will continue to be laughably underfunded. Other commenters apparently agree:
As it is, the legislation requires the FDA to inspect even large food processors only once every five years. Eric Olson, director of the Pew Health Group, dismissed the notion that the FDA would harass small farms. "The FDA just isn’t going to have the time to be rooting around after specific (small) producers," he said.
The bill has been much too long in coming. Hopefully, it is only 24 hours from heading to President Obama.