Food Safety: It’s Not Over Yet
The country has a new food safety bill, but there are still questions about whom it will affect and what it will require.
President Barack Obama signed into law the Food Safety and Modernization Act (FSMA) in December. While the bill does give the government far-reaching authority to set and enforce safety standards for farmers and food processors, there are provisions protecting small and organic farms and local food producers from expensive and unnecessary federal regulations.
For example, the new law exempts from new Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulations those farms and food businesses with less than $500,000 in annual sales that sell the majority of their products locally. “Food that is sold within a 175-mile radius from where it is produced is exempt,” explained Sharif Ibrahim, deputy legislative assistant for Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.). Sen. Nelson, who was a sponsor of the bill, has been working since 2007 on this issue.
But even with the exemptions, many in the local food movement who opposed the FSMA say the FDA cannot be trusted.
“This bill gives a tremendous amount of additional enforcement by way of fines, penalties, license revocations, further license requirements, and control over processes and harvest,” said Doreen Hannes, director of research of the National Independent Consumer and Farmers Association. She added that many specifics of the penalties and license requirements were not outlined in the bill, but instead will be left up to the discretion of federal agencies.
The legislation, which will add about 4,000 additional federal employees in fiscal year 2011 and a total of 17,800 through fiscal year 2014, expands the FDA’s current registration and inspection authority, though it does not change the existing jurisdictional boundaries between the FDA and the USDA — a much-debated issue that held up votes in the Senate and had farmers gnawing their nails to the quick.
Meat, poultry and some egg products will remain under the authority of the USDA, but all other whole and processed foods would be subject to FDA jurisdiction. The FDA “will require auditing, verifying and certifying the processes used to produce any consumable product for human or animal feed,” Hannes said.
Food safety has been a major issue in agriculture since 2006, when industrially-farmed spinach from California was contaminated with a deadly strain of E. coli, resulting in illness and deaths nationwide and a sharp drop in grocery store sales of fresh spinach.
The giant distributors and retailers that dominate the produce industry lost billions of dollars and realized that it was no longer in their interest to oppose new food safety laws. The first food safety bill proposed in the House lumped small, local and organic food producers in with huge industrial players. The bill would have put growers selling for their local farmers’ market or for area restaurants under the same regulations and forced them to use the same growing practices as giant produce operators.
This bill passed the House overwhelmingly, but local food interests lobbied the Senate aggressively for exemptions for small-scale producers. The final version of the FSMA requires the FDA to ensure that its food safety rules don’t conflict with organic practices or soil and wildlife conservation programs. It requires the FDA to support research and outreach on safety practices appropriate for small producers, and it protects from new FDA regulations those farms and food businesses with less than $500,000 in annual sales that sell the majority of their products locally.
“The bill mostly targets the produce industry,” Ibrahim said. Until now, there has been very little control over the processes that take place “between the field and the fork” with produce growers, Ibrahim continued.
Doreen Hannes, who has also served on the R-CALF USA Animal ID Committee for several years, said that the National Animal Identification System (NAIS) could reappear under the new Food Safety Bill. (After waves of protests from farmers and ranchers, the USDA’s NAIS system was shelved last year.)
The biggest concern, as far as Hannes can see, is the mandate that the bill be in “compliance with international agreements.” Language within the bill states, “Nothing in this Act (or an amendment made by this Act) shall be construed in a manner inconsistent with the agreement establishing the World Trade Organization (WTO) or any other treaty or international agreement to which the United States is a party.”
Hannes contends that this language could put all U.S. food and all U.S. farms under the authority of the Department for Homeland Security and the Department of Defense in the event of contamination or any “emergency” — which, she adds, is not yet defined.
“Rules within the WTO are to ensure that foods imported to the U.S. by countries with less stringent standards than the U.S. are still safe,” Ibrahim counters. He added that NAIS has been “tabled” by the USDA because of widespread opposition, and that animal traceback methods are being left up to the individual states.
But Hannes asserts that under international “guidelines and standards” established by the WTO, NAIS would have to be enforced if the U.S. were to be in compliance with the international treaty. And compliance would also mandate the FDA’s enforcement of “good agricultural practices” as defined by the WTO.
Good Agricultural Practices, or GAP, is a check-point system initially created by the USDA to establish guidelines to “safeguard the food supply.” Originally set up as a “voluntary” system used mostly in the produce industry, the new bill makes mandatory the criteria established by GAP.
“Every step in GAP costs the grower of food money and lots of paperwork,” Hannes contended. “If you’re better at farming than paperwork, you’ll be penalized — which means more money out of your pocket.” According to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), the bill is “intended to strengthen the authority of the FDA and redouble its efforts to prevent and respond to food safety concerns.” But Hannes doesn’t think the new law will accomplish this. “It would end U.S. sovereignty over its own food supply by insisting on compliance with the WTO, thus actually threatening our national security,” Hannes said.