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Will the Food Safety Bill Make Food Safe?

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With a vote likely imminent on the Food Safety Bill S510 this week, many of us want to call our Senators and weigh in on the impending vote, which will affect food quality, safety and price for years to come.

But we aren't sure exactly how to weigh in because confusion about this bill is so rampant. Most agree that something needs to be done about industrial suppliers whose unhealthy livestock farming practices led to the recent salmonella outbreak and recall of eggs. But the question is what?

The bill's many proponents (including Consumer's Union, General Mills, Kraft Foods and others) assert that broader and deeper authority and an increased budget will allow the FDA to monitor safety measures and demand accountability to assure food safety, finally getting a handle on the behemoth of industrial food production.

According to a food safety expert I spoke to, "The bill is rare in having broad bipartisan support because it hits a "sweet spot" in the middle," targeting concerns of legislators on both sides of the political spectrum.

Yet many people and groups, like Organic Consumers Organization want concrete assurances that the bill won't apply the regulations explicitly crafted to regulate large industrial facilities (factory farms and industrial agriculture and manufacturers) to small businesses (family farmers, organic growers, farmer's markets, food artisans and local suppliers).

I read the bill and the proposed amendment and spoke with leading experts from organizations that support -- and others that oppose -- the bill to answer a few basic questions:

Are small and/or local suppliers exempt from onerous provisions that would drive them out of business?

A number of groups have been working behind the scenes, knee deep in legislative policy discussions aiming to achieve flexibility for the burgeoning consumer-driven industry in healthier, locally grown foods, supplied by small to medium size operations.

As of now, the so-called Manager's Package, a refinement of the bill, unveiled last summer, states that "raw agricultural commodities that the Secretary has determined are low risk and do not present a risk of serious adverse health consequences or death" may at the discretion of the FDA Secretary be asked to comply to modified regulations only. In addition, this new version omits "any requirements that conflict with or duplicate the requirements of the national organic program established under the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990..." This is a step forward for organic and smaller growers.

However, the proposed Tester Amendment (up this week for a vote for inclusion in S510) would, if included, go even further. It would definitely make small providers adhere to more modest reporting requirements, and exempt them from the extensive ones required of larger companies. The flexibility would also extend to food products sold locally.

Concerned consumers can write their Senators to request inclusion of the complete language of the Tester Amendment, which would also exempt home gardens.

Even with this language, James S. Turner, Chairman of Citizens for Health isn't reassured. "We have the most contaminated food supply of any industrialized country because of the way FDA applies laws," says Turner, who I interviewed this week (listen here). "The problem is that the words written on paper and the way the FDA typically enforces are two different things."

Few have followed and monitored the activities of the FDA for as long as Turner has. He's been at it since 1968. He points out that former Monsanto vice president for public policy, Michael R. Taylor, as the newly appointed FDA food czar in his role as the Deputy Commission for Foods, will be the one to oversee the Food Safety Modernization Act's implementation. Says Turner, "the FDA enforcement pattern has been to ignore, placate or make a deal with the giants, and then turn around and pick on the growers it can outsize and intimidate -- the medium and small ones. Add to that, the new inclusion police powers imposing criminal terms of five to 10 years for any violations, this bill will come down like a hammer on small suppliers," Turner believes. Here's a list of campaign contributions made by groups, supporting, and opposing the S510.

How exactly will S510 make food safer?

Additional confusion about the bill stems in part from the different ways different people understand the word "safety."

To some, "safety" means safer food cultivation practices that are likely to create healthier fruits, vegetables and animals. To others, "safety" means more antibiotics, more food irradiation and more "controllable" food. In the latter approach to safety, which focuses on the presence of micro-organisms, a vegetable that has been boiled at high heat and vacuum packed in a can is inherently "safer" than a raw vegetable.

As such, in its focus on safety, the FDA's stated aim will be to enforce labeling, tracking and monitoring practices, not safer growing practices. In addition, S510 aims to coordinate with Homeland Security to decrease any perceived risks of terrorism impacting the U.S. food supply.

S510 neither mandates nor mentions the safer practices that health consumers and small, farm-friendly groups typically ask for, such as a ban on the use of:

  • Concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOS)
  • Genetically modified organisms
  • Use of hormones, pesticides or endocrine disruptors
  • Food irradiation
  • Antibiotic use in livestock

Given that industrial practices are now rampant, how do we make the foods arising from that production, safer while still leaving breathing room for the growers of healthier foods? Would healthier growing practices and concerns be better addressed by a farm bill? Will S510 clear the way for such provisions, or will it institute practices that the consumer health and agriculture movements oppose?

I look forward to hearing your responses. For health insight, action and radio, www.healthjournalistblog.com

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