In the coming week, the Senate will be voting on S.510, the so-called Food Safety Modernization Act, a bill that will provide sweeping new powers to the FDA to regulate farmers. In the wake of the recent egg recall, as well as previous problems with spinach, tomatoes, peppers and peanuts, it makes sense to put tighter controls in place. But while most of these outbreaks have originated at large scale farming operations, the FDA has in the past, shown a penchant for scrutinizing small farmers to the point of harassment, while leaving the big boys pretty much on their own.
I’ll tell you one thing. I always get a little nervous when I see the word “modernization” in a bill before Congress. Not because I am a Luddite, I’m not. But rather because a number of bills carrying this description have been put forward by industry, as an attempt to get away from those “old-fashioned” regulations that have required a certain level of accountability rather than simply letting them run roughshod over an unsuspecting public.
This is part of a growing trend of corporate influence and money spilling over into the government agencies that are supposed to be overseeing them. In the past two years, we have seen this play out disastrously, first on Wall St. and then in the Gulf of Mexico.
The FDA has a similar history of cozy relationships with the very powerful food and drug industries. In the past, they have shown a pronounced bias in their enforcement procedures, going after small farmers aggressively for minor infractions while letting huge corporations off the hook for misconduct that have in some cases led to hundreds of deaths. One particularly egregious example of this was the L-tryptophan EMS tragedy in the late eighties, in which it was revealed that FDA insiders actively covered-up evidence linking the outbreak with genetically modified bacteria used in the production of this drug. They did this in order to protect the nascent biotech industry, to which several of these individuals had financial ties. This whole story is revealed in Jeffrey Smith’s book Seeds of Deception, which I recommend. There is a familiar pattern here and one that is putting every American at risk.
That being said, people are nervous after the recent food scares on everything from eggs, to tomatoes and spinach, not to mention Mad Cow disease. It is an entirely appropriate role for the government to play in our society to oversee commercial interests to ensure the well-being of the people and the land. Still, looking at the facts, most of these food crises originated in large scale industrial operations. If the FDA intends to focus most of its efforts on small farmers, squeezing out the competition for their friends in agri-business and in the process, eliminating any alternative for those of us who are, frankly, afraid of what some of the large scale industrial farming operations are putting out there, then it really won’t help at all. Between the unsafe, overcrowded conditions, the grotesque manipulations of animals, the excessive use of pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers, the proliferation of dangerous, inadequately tested genetically modified foods, and the development of plant varieties optimized for shelf life and transportability rather than nutrition, there is a lot to be concerned about.
As Tom Philpott, of Grist, says, “Today, thousands of small farms and food purveyors are building out alternative food systems rooted in community development and ecological sustainability, not just profit. … they are economically fragile, as they (unlike the dominant food system) operate without government support or subsidy.”
Putting a huge regulatory burden on them would more likely drive them out of business than anything else. (See video clip from Kristin Canty’s upcoming documentary, Farmageddon).
That is exactly what Judith McGeary, founder and executive director of the Farm and Ranch Freedom Alliance thinks will happen. “S. 510, as it is currently written, will almost certainly put many local farmers and food producers out of business. These small businesses do not have the resources to absorb the time and expense of extensive new federal regulations.” Her group and 130 others support the Tester-Hagan amendment which provides exceptions for small farmers.
Jean Halloran of Consumers Union agrees that the exclusion should be made for farmers that are small (under $500,000 in sales) and local (selling half their wares with a 400 mile radius). As the law currently stands it gives the FDA the leeway to set those limits themselves. “The key question here is how do you insure that FDA will do its job while providing sufficient guidance in the law to insure that FDA is spending its resources in the most effective manner?”[Correction: Consumer groups have felt that the 400 mile radius was too large and have lobbied to reduce it. According to a comment (see below) from Jean Halloran, the latest version of the bill includes an exemption for farms selling half or more of their wares within a 275 mile radius.]
By the way, if you’re wondering whether FDA has a history of being heavy-handed, consider this. Armed raids on small farms and local food clubs have become common. Most of them are in response to alleged code violations, not in response to outbreaks of food-borne illnesses.
This is a potentially dangerous bill, that might be rendered acceptable with the Tester amendment. But not everyone thinks so. Rady Ananda of Food Freedom says that the exceptions granted in the Tester Amendment are limited only to the need for a food safety plan. All the other provisions of the bill will still apply. He calls the amendment an attempt to put lipstick on a pig. He says the bill will lead to more industry consolidation without added safety. He cites Mike Adams, who catalogues the alarming number of deaths traceable to the FDA and who says, “This is the last agency the American public needs “protecting” its food supply.”
I tend to agree.
Mark Kastel, co-founder of The Cornucopia Institute summarizes the argument concisely. “I can’t imagine, in the constrained budgetary environment we’re all going to be working in, that S. 510 will be adequately funded. That will make it more important to make sure that limited resources truly are targeted to achieve the best bang for the buck in terms of protecting the citizenry. We know where the greatest risks are both in terms of hazards and scale — indirect, through many middlemen and sundry brands, and national distribution. It makes no logical sense whatsoever to focus on owner-operated direct marketers.”
Yet, given its track record, that is almost surely what the FDA will do.
As we sit in the aftermath of our Thanksgiving meal, this might be a good time to consider your feelings on this issue. Don’t be afraid to call or email your senator and let him or her know how you’d like to see them vote on S. 510 (go to www.Senate.gov for their contact information, or call the Capitol switchboard, 202-224-312).
RP Siegel is the co-author, with Roger Saillant, of the eco-thriller Vapor Trails, which is about the energy industry. The two are currently working on the second book in the series, about the food industry.
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