Fedwatch: Debunking the Buzz

By Lance Christie

Keep an eye on food safety legislation; but don’t believe everything your read on the Internet, says an organics inspector.

by Lance Christie

Organic farming advocacy and research organizations such as the National Sustainable Agricul­ture Coalition, Organic Farming Research Foundation and others have kept close tabs on the Food Safety Modernization Act of 2009 [HR 875, sponsored by Representative Rosa Delauro (D-CT)] and other food safety legislation introduced by Rep. John Dingell (D-MI): HR 759, and S. 425 sponsored by Senator Sherrod Brown (D-OH).

They (and I) concur: Put away the panic buttons. We need to advocate for certain causes with our Con­gress­­critters in any food safety legislation that is passed, but a number of points in the Internet buzz about this legislative area need de-bunking.

First, over 100 food safety bills were introduced in the last Congress. None passed

Second, none of these bills is being fast-tracked in Congress. In fact, not a single one of these food safety bills has yet to be heard by a Congressional committee.

Third, though some provisions could make it more difficult and do need to be addressed, none of these bills outlaws organic gardening or backyard farming in any way.

The language in these bills needs to be carefully modified to make sure that no onerous or unreasonable requirements are made on family farmers, organic farmers, farmer’s markets, Consumer Supported Agriculture (CSAs) and small-scale value-added food processors. But what these bills are really about is addressing the way the Food and Drug Administration has dropped the ball on food safety in the U.S. The national food safety monitoring problem needs to be corrected, and a host of organic advocacy organizations support passing a bill similar to HR 875 or S 425.

Ironically, HR 875 requires that the FDA identify all sources of potentially hazardous contamination or practices in food production which increase the risk of food-borne illness. This could quite easily yield an official government indictment of the industrialized agriculture system as increasing the risk of food-borne illness, because it transparently does. Dingell’s HR 759 applies only to fresh fruit and vegetable growers and processors, requiring all processors to register with the FDA, pay fees, evaluate potential hazards and address them, keeping exhaustive records. Even Dingell had the sense to define different categories of processor and grower by size, so that small-size operations pay a lower fee and face less stringent regulations and documentation requirements than massive industrial processors do.

What to watch out for

HR 814 requires a national animal identification system with radio implants in every animal. Its proponents are attempting to fold it into food safety legislation As proposed, the national animal identification system would put free-range and small animal producers out of business; it is being promoted by the giant feedlot and packing house interests.

Henry Waxman (D-CA), chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee which has authority over the FDA, is reportedly preparing a synthesis food safety bill which he will introduce through his committee. It’s anticipated to contain the provisions protecting organic and small-scale producers from onerous requirements while holding the FDA’s feet to the fire in respect to developing and enforcing realistic, public-protecting food safety regulations. Since nobody has seen this bill yet, we of the organic community do not know that its rosy portents will be fully realized in the legislative flesh, but if Waxman is in charge of developing it, the chance of it being pretty darn good out of the gate is high.

So, be prepared to clamor in support of food safety legislation with language that exempts local, small-scale agriculture and food processing from onerous requirements that desperately need to be imposed on giant industrialized farming operations, but don’t be tricked into opposing food safety legislation per se – that is exactly what some of the large industrialized agriculture interests are lobbying for. The imposition of different rules and costs for small, locally distributed food producers can be legally differentiated from the rules and costs imposed on large concerns that market nationally through the rubric of public health risk: the Peanut Corporation of America in Georgia which distributed peanut products nationally could (and did) give people all across the country salmonella and it was hard to trace which products in the national distribution pipeline came from their plant. No such problem with Manzana Springs spinach at the Moonflower Market or Farmer’s Market, or Ye Ol’ Geezer’s pork.

Richard Lance Christie is an internationally accredited organic crop, livestock and processing inspector based in Moab, and is the author of “The Renewable Deal,” a blueprint for construction of the renewables-based, sustainable “Ecozoic Soci­ety” -see manyone.net/EarthRestorationPortal.

This article was originally published on April 30, 2009.