Food safety reform is a mess
My considered analysis regarding food safety in the U.S. is this: It’s an unmitigated disaster.
Salmonella in peanut butter made by a single manufacturer causes deaths, sickness and the recall of thousands of different products from store shelves. Over 10 million pounds of beef have been recalled since President Obama took office. Indeed, the ongoing food-safety crisis that is industrial ground beef inspired NYT writer Michael Moss to win a Pulitzer.
New strains of microbes like the deadly E coli O157:H7 and antibiotic-resistant salmonella — bugs that didn’t exist 30 years ago — raise the stakes as high as they can be. With food safety laws more or less unchanged since the 1930s, the long overdue push for reform seemed, compared to other legislative priorities, easy. What could be more of a no-brainer than safe food?
And yet, the food safety bill as passed by the House and the one under consideration in the Senate are turning out to be … well, perhaps not unmitigated disasters, but certainly a mess. Frankly, I’m still trying to decide if I have an opinion on the merits of the bill. And if you know me, you know how shocking that statement is.
Take for instance the current fracas over Sen. Diane Feinstein’s amendment to the Senate food safety bill, which would ban the endocrine disruptor bisphenol-A from all food packaging. BPA is a chemical used in the linings of canned food and beverages (not to mention in many unexpected places, such as register receipts). Yes, the industry still clings to its own research showing BPA is perfectly safe. But independent research has shown the dangers of BPA for years — and the FDA itself, while moving slowly, is considering its own ban.
The idea that Congress might act in the public interest and protect us from a hazardous chemical has forced the food industry’s hand. They are now threatening to turn from ardent supporters of food safety legislation to fierce opponents. And if they do, they will find unexpected allies. Since the bill’s introduction in the House, some of the loudest opposition has come from small and organic producers. And even with the inclusion of improvements and amendments meant to soften the financial and regulatory blow the new law will impose, the complaints keep coming.
But then, small growers make some compelling arguments as to the roots of the crisis, writes Carolyn Lochhead in the San Francisco Chronicle:
They point to the sale of bagged vegetables, cut fruit and other processed food in which vast quantities of produce from different farms are mixed, sealed in containers and shipped long distances, creating a host for harmful bacteria.
The legislation does not address what some experts suspect is the source of E. coli contamination: the large, confined animal feeding operations that are breeding grounds for E. coli and are regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, not the FDA.
“It does not take on the industrial animal industry and the abuses going on,” said Tom Willey of T&D Willey Farms in Madera, an organic grower of Mediterranean vegetables. “The really dangerous organisms we’re dealing with out here, and trying to protect our produce and other foodstuffs from, are coming out the rear end of domestic animals.”
Indeed, if the “state of the art” food safety protocols for leafy greens are any indication, it’s clear that the food industry is welcoming and the government is encouraging a move toward safety through “sterilization”:
Large produce buyers such as Wal-Mart and McDonald’s… have imposed rules of their own that have forced many California farmers who supply them to fence off waterways, poison wildlife to keep animals out of fields and destroy crop hedgerows that support beneficial insects.
Deputy Agriculture Secretary Kathleen Merrigan said Monday the administration is keeping a “close watch” on these so-called “super metrics,” acknowledging that they have harmed the environment but said, “nobody gets a pass on food safety.”
As for “the rear end of domestic animals,” for all their issues they are by and large left out of current food safety legislation. The USDA has responsibility over meat, eggs, and poultry and, while the current legislation significantly strengthens the FDA’s powers over everything else, it leaves the USDA’s authority over meat safety — authority that has spawned recall after recall — virtually untouched.
You could argue, as some have done, that this is a good thing, that the USDA is more attuned to the needs of small producers. However, the food safety division of the USDA just released a draft of new safety regulations for slaughterhouses and the consensus among small producers is that it too might put them out of business. And that doesn’t take account of the industrial meat industry’s long-held desire to introduce irradiation and chemical washes as the surest way to guarantee safe meat (it’s worth noting that FDA food safety czar/former Monsanto exec Michael Taylor is a fan as well). Pay no attention to the grayish color and unnaturally long shelf life of your irradiated meat. Just eat up.
In the end, I suppose the ups and downs of food safety reform merely reflect the schizophrenic food system we have. Industrial producers get the run of the place while the small producers have to fit into any available cracks. It should thus surprise no one that Congress pays more heed to the needs of the food industry giants and less to those forced to scurry in their shadow. Still, the Senate bill has made enough accommodations to the needs of small producers that one of the leading advocates of small farmers, the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, feels comfortable signing on.
If there’s a silver lining to all this, I think it’s the possibility that making what was a surprisingly unregulated self-regulated industry accountable will force us to acknowledge that there is no single food system anymore. I don’t think the administration or Congress wants to destroy small producers. And I don’t think the food safety bill will do it either, though that doesn’t mean it will be painless. Oh, look. I guess I do have an opinion after all.
Cross-posted from markbittman.com