Food-safety legislation leaves gaping hole for meat giants
The bill recently passed the passed through the House Energy and Commerce Committee and awaits consideration on the House floor; no vote is currently scheduled. Because of my recent fixation on the ag aspects of Waxman’s cap-and-trade bill, I haven’t been following his food-safety bill closely. The excellent Food & Water Watch, a group that that watches out for the interests of both consumers and small-scale farmers, has issued an informative assessment (PDF) of the legislation in its current form.
As we learned yet again in JBS’ recall of 421,000 pounds of beef, federal agencies don’t have the power to enforce recalls of tainted products; recalls are “voluntary”–and offending companies are not even required to release information about precisely where suspect products are sent. Indeed, as far I can tell, JBS has released no such information. On the company’s Web site, the latest press release dates to October 2008. This morning, I called the company’s “media relations” number–which is folded under the public relations department, according to the voice recording–to ask if the info had been released. I left a voice message; no one has called back.
Importantly, FWW informs us, H.R. 2749 would give the FDA to recall suspect food. That’s an important step–and it’s shocking that the agency doesn’t currently have that power. But here’s the catch: the FDA’s purview does not extend to meat. Under the Federal Meat Inspection Act, the USDA, not the FDA, monitors meat safety. “This means that meat and poultry plants under USDA inspection are not affected by this bill,” FWW writes.
In other words, gigantic meat companies like JBS–which is currently under investigation for “bribing of public officials, racketeering, corruption, fraud and collusion] in its home country–will still be deciding when to declare a recall and what information to divulge. That’s an outrage.
What’s worse, there’s no serious movement afoot in Congress to put teeth into regulation of giant slaughterhouses and CAFOs. “There is no legislation being discussed on the Hill that would deal with USDA slaughter facilities,” FWW researcher Elanor Starmer told me in an email. She added that the President’s Food Safety Working Group is is supposed to come up with a framework for regulating industrial-scale slaughterhouses, “but there’s nothing concrete yet.”
As for the rest of H.R. 2749–apart from the gaping hole with respect to regulating meat–FWW is generally favorable. It does offer a list of “ways the bill could be approved.” Some of the key ones involve the scale issue–food safety rules that are appropriate for regulating, say, a gigantic peanut butter factory can be crippling for small food operations that serve nearby communities.
If H.R. 2749 can be tweaked to account for scale, it deserves support. But we’ll still need a bill that ups regulation on reckless industrial-meat giants like JBS.