saladHealthy appetizer — or public-health menace.[The House Food Safety Bill passed overwhelmingly Thursday afternoon. See more at bottom of post.]

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The House will vote today on a momentous, controversial plan to overhaul a large swath of the nation’s food-safety system.

The vote comes amid yet another round of recalls. On Tuesday, the FDA announced the voluntary recall of “one lot” of salmonella-tainted cilantro, distributed by a company called Frontera Produce.

The agency did not define how much cilantro makes up a lot, but it must be, well, a lot, because “the lot in question, 118122, was distributed to two retail store chains in Texas, Oklahoma, Colorado, Louisiana, and New Mexico,” the press release states.

Yet again, the sieve-like nature of our food-safety system comes into relief. According to the FDA:

This product originated in Mexico and was procured by Frontera Produce, who [sic] subsequently routinely tested for contaminants as part of their internal food safety program.

So if the cilantro underwent “routine testing” and showed up with salmonella, why did it go out to two (unnamed) grocery chains with operations in five states? Evidently, the tests got done after the stuff went out to potentially thousands of consumers. Nice one! Just a week before, another Texas company issued a voluntary recall on another (pardon the expression) shitload of salmonella-infected cilantro; and California produce giant Tanimura & Antle recalled 22,000 cases of salmonella-tainted lettuce that had already gone out to 29 states.

It is against this backdrop that the House is debating a major overhaul of the U.S. food-safety landscape, or at least the part of it that doesn’t include meat. The bill, H.R. 2749, or The Food Safety Enhancement Act of 2009, would transform the role of the FDA, which oversees food safety of all foods except for meat and eggs, which fall under the (rather timid) purview of the USDA.

On Wednesday, the bill narrowly failed in an attempt by its sponsors to pass it in a special vote that would have required a two-thirds majority in exchange for not having to consider amendments. The tally was 280-150–six votes shy of the necessary margin. Small-farm and sustainable-ag advocates generally opposed the bill, arguing it would place disproportionately heavy burdens on community-scale players within the food system.

But in the late afternoon, the House Rules Committee announced that another vote would be called Thursday–this one requiring only a simple majority. Again, however, no amendments will be considered. Given Wednesday’s vote, its passage seems imminent.

The legislation contains some important provisions for tightening up an absurdly porous food safety system: the FDA would no longer have to rely on “voluntary” recalls but instead will itself have the power to recall tainted food. Moreover, inspections of food-production facilities will be stepped up.

But it also has aspects that would weigh heavily on small-scale farmers and food processors–ones that pose a fraction of the threat that big players pose, and are responsible for a fraction of the recalls, too. One is a $500 per-facility annual fee for processors to help offset the cost of inspections. Few dispute the FDA needs a larger budget; but $500 falls a lot heavier on someone who turns locally grown cabbage onto kraut for a farmers market than on a company that, say, makes “peanut paste” for of the nation’s large-scale food corporations.

A week ago, The Wall Street Journal reported that lobby groups representing large-scale grain and livestock interests zealously opposed the bill, with the reliably pro-agribusiness House Ag committee chair Collin Peterson pushing their agenda. The fear seemed to be that the bill would give the FDA authority to regulate livestock feed rations–which as I’ve reported before likely contribute significantly to food safety issues. Outbreaks of antibiotic-resistant staph (MRSA) and salmonella seem related to routine doses of antibiotics on livestock farms; and the practice of feeding animals an ethanol byproduct called distillers grains has been linked to both E. coli 0157 outbreaks and antibiotic-resistant bacteria strains.

Moreover, cattle producers still routinely feed their cows “chicken litter”–chicken shit mixed up with excess feed and other wastes–even though it can contain cow blood meal (which large-scale poultry farmers often feed to chickens). Appetizing, huh?

That a federal agency might seriously regulate such practices must have made the industry skittish–even more so after a top FDA official recently testified that routine antibiotic applications on livestock farms must end. “Live animals are not ‘food’ until the point of processing, which is why this bill needs to clarify that the FDA does not have regulatory authority on our farms, ranches and feedlots,” a functionary for the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association told the Journal.

But by Wednesday’s vote, such concerns had evidently been fixed. Phillip Brasher of the Des Moines Register reported Wednesday afternoon:

Farm-state lawmakers won several last-minute changes, including a provision exempting grain growers from new farming standards. Recordkeeping requirements for livestock farms were restricted. The pork industry kept out of the bill some proposed restrictions on antibiotic use.

The small-producer lobby was less successful; the $500 per-facility fee remained in the version voted on Wednsday. In a Wednesday press release, Ferd Hoefner, policy director of the widely respected National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, said that some small-producer concerns had been taken care of in the version voted on Wednesday. In particular, farms that sell directly to consumers would have access to “limited exemptions from traceability and registration requirements” that would be onerous.

But the legislation would stiill place double bookkeeping and traceability requirements on organic growers, who already follow similar procedures from the USDA’s National Organic Program. And even as it gives factory-scale livestock farms a free pass, the bill comes down hard on the wildlife that might–gasp!–trespass on farms. “The bill contains language that experience shows can do serious harm to wildlife and biodiversity, while failing to specify the positive role that conservation practices can play to address food safety concerns,” Hoefner says.

All in all, Hoefner finds the bill wanting. “This bill ultimately had great potential to economically harm family farms as a result of overreaching provisions that do nothing to advance the important cause of food safety,” Hoefner declared.

He added, though, that “simple, common-sense amendments” could fix the bill’s flaws and make into a decent new framework for food safety.” The Kaptur-Farr amendment [PDF], for example, has generated wide support in the sustainable-ag community.

And therein lies the problem with the Wednesday afternoon machinations of the House Rules Committee. Again, as in Wednesday’s vote, the possibility for amendments has been taken off the table. And this time, a simple majority can seal the deal.

I’m told that Wednesday night, as I write this, representatives are haggling over the final version of the bill due to be voted on Thursday. (Over on the Center for Rural Affairs blog, Steph Larsen has a cogent post on the lamentable haste the House leadership is using to ram through this bill.) I hope House members account for the concerns of small producers. We clearly need a new food-safety regime–and in some respects, this bill makes baby steps in the right direction. Underfunded watchdog agencies and laissez-faire enforcement have allowed the corporations that dominate our food system to routinely put millions at risk. But fixing that problem can’t mean stepping on the necks of the producers hard at work building alternative food systems.

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Update: Food safety bill passes

As expected, HR 2749 passed overwhelmingly Thursday afternoon–283-142. Democrats supported it by a margin of 229-20; Republicans clocked in at 54-122.

The version voted on was not substantially different from the one that narrowly missed passage Wednesday. To me, the bill still seems too easy on the food giants that pose the most risk, and a little too hard on the small producers who are creating community-based alternatives to Big Food. During the debate, I watched bitterly as House Ag Committee chair Collin Peterson (D.-Minn.), a pit bull in service of ag interests, declared his satisfaction with the bill. He ticked off the names of the groups that supported or were neutral on it: National Pork Producers, National Corn Growers, etc.

However, as with the climate-bill debate, effecting real change in our food-safety regime–the move to create a system that holds corporate food giants to account for the health threats they create–is going to be a long slog, rife with compromise. A split has opened in the progressive food community about how small-scale producers would fare under the regime laid out by the bill. A coalition of groups, including some I deeply respect like Food and Water Watch and Consumers Union, supported the bill. They wrote in a Thursday letter:

The complaints of certain sustainable and organics groups are unfounded.  Great pains have been taken by members on both sides of the aisle, and on several House Committees, to address concerns that have been raised about this legislation. 

Above-mentioned National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition maintained its opposition to the end, sticking by the analysis laid out above. The argument seems to be about how the FDA would interpret the bill if it became law–FWW and CU urge us to believe that the agency would go gentle on small-scale producers, and the NSAC emphasizes that the agency could use its new authority to crack down on them.

This debate will continue when the Senate takes up the issue in the fall.