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What Does the Food Saftey Bill Really Mean?

The Senate passes the long-awaited food safety bill, the first overhaul in seven decades.

This morning, the lame-duck Senate did something remarkable. It passed S. 510, the Food Safety Modernization Act, with a whopping 73-25 bipartisan majority. It may sound like a snooze, but don’t fall asleep. This bill could crush backyard gardeners, seed savers, and raw milk dairy farmers under the blunt heels of the new food Gestapo. Or it could just introduce more oversight for shoddy corporate producers, which could slow future outbreaks of E. coliand Salmonella in peanuts, spinach, and hamburgers. Either way, it's been called the most aggressive overhaul of food safety laws in 72 years.

“Everyone who eats will benefit from this historic legislation,” Michael F. Jacobson of the Center for Science in the Public Interest said in a press release. Chris Waldrop, the director of the Food Policy Institute at the Consumer Federation of America, told the Chicago Tribune, “It's really a paradigm shift. It moves [Food and Drug Administration] from reacting to outbreaks and recalls to preventing them.”

Maybe it’s really only remarkable since the Senate has accomplished so little on immigration and comprehensive energy reform. The food safety bill hardly sounds revolutionary. It’s a list of powers you’d expect the nation’s food safety regulators to have already. The FDA will have the power to issue recalls rather than leaving them up to individual food producers to recall food suspected of contamination voluntarily. It requires food safety plans and a food tracking system to make it easier to find sources of contamination. The bill is also intended to hold imported foods to the same safety standards as domestic foods.

The legislation still has to be reconciled with H.R. 2749, the House bill of food safety (see USA Today’s comparison of the two bills). But since controversial restrictions on Bisphenol-A (introduced by Sen. Diane Feinstein, D-California) and a moratorium on earmarks (introduced by Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Oklahoma) were dropped, it’s expected to be resolved and head to Obama’s desk before the end of the year. In short, there’s still a chance it could fail because of concerns about where the estimate $1.6 billion to fund the bill will come. Then, we’ll have to wait another two months for another thousand people to die from food-borne illnesses.

That’s what it took Congress in 1938 with the Food, Drugs, and Cosmetics Act, which passed after a protracted legislative battle—and only passed after the 1937 “Elixir Sulfanilamide tragedy,” wherein a Tennessee company sold a badly manufactured medicine that was essentially antifreeze and caused more than 100 deaths.

So it’s hardly the first time the sweeping food safety legislation has stalled for years. The Pure Food and Drugs Act was introduced in 1889, and languished for 17 years until the publication of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle pushed forward the Meat Inspection Act in 1906. While the earlier food safety act might be remembered as the hallmark legislation that ushered in a wave of large-scale, federal food industry regulation, it shuttered small food processing facilities, writes historian Andrew F. Smith in Eating History. “Typically, it was the large processors who opposed the regulation, but then had a much easier time carrying it its requirements, which is still true today.”

And that’s one issue that contemporary critics have coalesced around, creating an unlikely alliance of Tea Party survivalists and crunchy hippy farmers. They say the bill will "makes it illegal to grow, share, trade, or sell homegrown food." It’s like the Patriot Act of food, “the most dangerous bill in the history of the United States.” Soon the TSA will be touching our tangelos.

“The granolas come at it from a standpoint that they want to eat all natural foods, and drink raw milk because they believe it cures everything from autism to erectile dysfunction,” Bill Marler, an outspoken food safety lawyer who’s been involved in drafting S. 510 told Mother Jones. “Then you have the tea party involved not because they drink raw milk but because they don't want the government involved in any aspect of their lives.”

While opponents continue to assert that the bill imposes a one-size-fits all, the Senate passed a version bill with an amendment from organic farmer Jon Tester (D-Montana) that exempts small farmers, who, Tester said, can’t afford and don’t need the regulation. Food guru Michael Pollan agreed, saying: "S. 510 is the most important food safety legislation in a generation. The Tester amendment will make it even more effective, strengthening food safety rules while protecting small farmers and producers.”

Small may be beautiful and small may eventually lead to a paradigm shift, but the most important thing to remember about any food safety bill is that it should reduce levels of illness and death. To do that, we’ve got to take on the 99 percent of farms and food producers that are causing illnesses and right now, unfortunately, they are not on the fringe. They're consistently the country’s largest food producers.

Image (cc) by Flickr user misterbisson.

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