Photo: peppergrasssNov. 4 update: The food-safety roundtable is now under way via email, with two Grist readers and 7 experts from the various stakeholder groups. We’re awed and flattered by the number of you who wrote in wanting to participate, and we hope you will share your viewpoints via the comments section when we begin publishing the edited transcript of the discussion next week.
Casual observers of the food-politics world probably don’t know it, but there’s a major shakeup coming in the way government oversees the food industry. After several high-profile scandals involving deadly spinach, peanut butter, and (most recently) eggs, the FDA has proven itself incapable of ensuring that the food exiting our vast manufacturing facilities is safe to eat. In short, the FDA’s power to stand up to food giants has crumbled under the weight of industry influence.
So Congress, in its dysfunctional way, has been forced to face up to the problem. Although the Senate failed to pass the Food Safety Modernization Act (S. 510) before the election, word is that it will take it back up during the lame-duck session in a few weeks.
If you asked us — not that anyone has — we’d say that a proper food-safety regime would a) protect consumers from the reckless practices of the biggest players, while b) not carelessly imposing ruinous rules on small farms that mostly sell directly to consumers.
Does the current legislation do the trick? Elanor Starmer of Food & Water Watch argued here on Grist that yes, it’s a step in the right direction — provided that the Tester Amendment passes. (It would relieve small operations of having to jump the same hurdles as the giants.) Meanwhile, independent journalist David Gumpert, who’s extensively chronicled the government’s bullying of raw-milk producers for Grist, disagrees that S. 510 will perform as advertised. He argues that increasing the FDA’s regulatory power could wipe out small farms. To make matters more complicated, a bevy of respected consumer groups led by Consumers Union (publisher of Consumer Reports) takes a third position: the Senate should pass S. 510 as is, without the Tester protections for small players.
Confused? We are! And it’s our job to understand this stuff!
That’s why we’ve invited food-policy experts from all sides of this complicated yet crucial debate to weigh in — and engage with each other — about whether there is indeed a food-safety crisis, whether S. 510 will make it better, and whether it will throw small producers under the bus in doing so. The discussion will be commencing tomorrow; we’ll start publishing excerpts from it next week.
But we also know that among Grist’s readership there are well-informed people with a direct stake in the food-safety fight: people who farm, run small-scale food enterprises, organize farmers markets, etc. We’d like to hear from you, too. If you want to have a voice in this discussion, email food editor Bonnie Powell ASAP at firstname.lastname@example.org, with a description of where you’re coming from and what you might bring to the debate.
Note: We’re as critical of Monsanto as the next agtivist, but we’re not interested in Food-safety-is-a-Trojan-horse-for-Monsanto-world-dominance! arguments. Because you know what? That’s crazy talk.