Common ground

Both bills

  • Cover produce, eggs, and processed foods — things the FDA regulates — but not meat, which is regulated by the USDA.
  • Would give the FDA the authority to require companies to recall contaminated products (currently, the agency can only ask nicely).
  • Increase the frequency of FDA inspections of food processing facilities and would require these facilities to create detailed food safety plans and implement them.

These are all big improvements over the current system. The bills also instruct the FDA to create safety standards for farms growing produce, such as how manure or pesticides are stored. This is the biggest area of contention; depending on how they’re written, these standar
ds could be very difficult for smaller or more diversified farms to meet. One positive note is that both bills instruct FDA to consider organic practices, conservation programs, and wetland protection efforts as they develop any on-farm standards. And these standards, which the FDA will develop after the bill passes, will be subject to public input — of which, if this legislative process is any indication, there will be plenty.

Where the Senate bill is better than the House bill

The Senate bill doesn’t charge businesses any fees for inspection. In contrast, the House bill would charge $500 per food-processing facility to generate revenue for the FDA’s inspection program. (Many small processors object to being charged the same amount as larger facilities and are concerned that this fee is too burdensome, which when you think about a farmers-market jam maker versus a Smucker’s plant, it is.)

Although both bills instruct the FDA to consider the impact that any new regulation could have on organic, small-scale, or direct marketing farm or food processors, and to consider the impact on conservation programs and practices, the Senate’s instructions are clearer. And S. 510 includes a program that offers technical assistance and education for small farms, providing grants to groups that could help farmers like my neighbors figure out how to implement food safety practices on their farm. (More small farmer/processor-friendly additions have been developed in a managers’ amendment [PDF] — changes to the bill that have been negotiated with both sides in advance, increasing their chances of passing — that will probably be passed if the Senate ever actually takes up the bill.)

Where the Senate bill is weaker than the House bill

S. 510 requires the FDA to inspect high-risk food processors — think the Peanut Corporation of America — only once every five years, and low-risk processors every seven years. That wouldn’t have caught the salmonella that spread like … well, creamy peanut butter, out of PCA’s Georgia facility in 2006, 2007, and 2008. On the other hand, the House bill requires high-risk operations to be inspected by the FDA every six to 12 months, and low-risk facilities every one to three years.

The Senate bill is also weaker on the standards it would impose on foreign processors that export to the United States. That means that U.S. companies (or foreign ones) operating abroad wouldn’t have to meet standards as strict as those at home. Great idea … if you like your coffee with a dash of melamine.

S. 510 and small farms: A Tester case

It’s important to remember that the vast majority of our food system is controlled by a few giant companies. That’s why one food safety mishap sends the whole country running for the toilet. We need regulations that can protect us against this kind of madness.

But we also need to make sure that if my neighbors want to sell to the local supermarket, they won’t be stymied by food safety requirements they can never meet. The Senate bill deals with this in part — see above — but it could do more. Enter Sens. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) and Kay Hagan (D-N.C.).

The Tester-Hagan amendment to S. 510 would exempt small farms and food processing businesses, meaning those that meet the definition of “small” or “very small,” that make under a certain amount of money, and that earn at least 50 percent of their revenue from direct-to-consumer sales (like farmers markets or CSAs), from some of the bill’s requirements. It would also require the FDA to study where our food safety problems are coming from — if they’re overwhelmingly associated with certain kinds of processing methods or certain sizes of operation. Hmm — I wonder what they’ll find?

These are good additions to the bill, and the Senate should pass the amendment when it takes up S. 510. (You can tell your senators as much by taking action here.)

It’s time to take food safety out of the realm of company marketing and place it squarely where it belongs: in the realm of the federal government, which is responsible for ensuring that the simple act of eating does not require us to take our lives into our own hands. But building a safer food system also means that these new rules must help — not prevent — small farmers and processors from taking the next step and expanding into larger markets.

The alternative to Congress taking action is allowing the big food companies to continue to write the rules. That would mean limiting my town’s access to sustainable food from our local farm to a few summer Saturdays — along with a whole lot of much bigger consequences.