Just when America thought it was safe to go back into the grocery store, another food outbreak wakes us up to the fact that there is something seriously wrong with its food safety system. This time it’s Nestle Toll House cookie dough with E.coli, a treat that nearly every kid in America reaches for a few times a month during the summer. This is yet another reminder why it’s important to get the new food safety legislation, currently winding its way through Congress, right.

Last week a new food safety bill passed unanimously out of the House Energy and Commerce Committee and opinions vary widely on the current bill. Known as H.R. 2749, the Food Safety Enhancement Act of 2009, the bill is being hailed as everything from as “the most sweeping reform of the food safety system in nearly 50 years” or the “totalitarian control of the food supply,” depending on what you read.

In addition to being supported by Consumers Union, the bill has also garnered the backing of the Grocery Manufacturers Association and the American Meat Institute due to compromises committee chairman Henry Waxman ironed out during committee consideration.

Key compromises that brought industry giants on board were the reduction of an annual registration fee for food production facilities from $1,000 to $500, capping the amount any single company would have to pay for both foreign and domestic operations at $175,000 and exempting meat and poultry from oversight by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The latter compromise was made to keep the bill from passing into the hands of the House Agricultural Committee, which would have likely gutted many key provisions of the bill.

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Good, Bad and Caution

The current bill is an effort by Congress to revamp our nation’s dysfunctional food safety system, giving the FDA more regulatory power and resources to help stem the tide from the growing number of record food safety outbreaks in everything from lettuce, spinach, peanut butter and now cookie dough.

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According to Consumers Union, the new food safety bill contains what they consider to be several steps in the right direction, including: inspection of high-risk food facilities at least every 6 to 12 months (FDA currently averages inspections one every 10 years), FDA recall authority, requirement of food facilities to register and pay an annual fee, and a traceability program.

Those more cautious about the bill include the Farmer to Consumer Legal Defense Fund, the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association and the National Pork Producers Council.

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In fact, the Farmer to Consumer Legal Defense Fund opposes the new food safety bill, citing among it’s chief concerns are that HR 2749 will “adversely impact small farms and food producers, without providing significant reforms in the industrial food system” and that it “does not address the underlying causes of food safety problems, including industrial agriculture practices and the consolidation of our food supply.”

The Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association is cautious, bringing up several good questions regarding definitions in the bill and how they will impact small farmers and processors. Russell Libby of MOFGA asks, “When is a farm a food processor that is a food ‘facility’ that warrants FDA regulation and oversight? When does a farm have enough potential impact on the food system to warrant FDA scrutiny?” Additionally, MOFGA states that “it oppose[s] laws that create barriers to entry for farmers and specialty food processors.”

For others who are skeptical of the bill, these remain “unanswered questions”.

What American Food Safety Needs Now is Reform

Even as the debate rages on about how the U.S. will create a new food safety system, with all of the attention focused on FDA’s failure to assure the safety of the food it regulates, a very quiet controversy is brewing at the USDA over the fact that the agency has yet to name an Under Secretary for the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS).

So far, the two leading candidates for the job, both with close ties to the food industry, have been knocked off track due to the efforts of a small collection of food safety advocates and a few advocacy groups who believe that food safety is not something that you should create a “Team of Rivals” around.

After watching the new administration’s efforts to select political appointees that conform to the plotline of a popular nonfiction book, it’s time to remind them why they won the election. Last year when Americans went to the polls in record numbers, they voted for change and the hope of reform.

What is becoming more evident every day is that while Republicans reward their base, Democrats kick their’s to the curb.

As one food safety expert who has been leading the charge for food safety reform in Washington for over twenty years said recently, “It’s funny. When Republicans win the election I have to fight the meat industry and when Democrats win I have to fight the meat industry. When is somebody going to stand up for the American consumer?”

We couldn’t agree more.

If the Obama Administration is Serious About Food Safety – We Need a Reformer

Every year in the U.S. an estimated 76 million people get sick with foodborne illnesses and 5,000 die, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. One person who knows this fact better than almost anybody else in this country, is food safety lawyer Bill Marler.

Marler recently came to the public’s attention with his generous offer to pay for author Michael Pollan’s visit to Washington State University, after his book had been removed from the freshmen reading program. What many may not know is that he’s been known as a leading advocate for food safety for nearly two decades.

Marler first leapt to national prominence as the lead attorney in the famous 1993 Jack in the Box E.coli outbreak. Since that time, Marler has led the charge in protecting the rights of consumers against unsafe practices of major corporations. While dedicated to a high standard of food safety protocols, Marler is also pragmatic about the real economic need for food safety.

Poor food safety practices also have a major negative impact on the bottom line of business, costing U.S. companies more than $6.9 billion each year, which Marler believes could be better spent to keep America’s food supply truly safe.

Despite the food industry’s long contempt for personal injury attorneys, Marler could end up being their dream pick for the FSIS spot if they were willing to allow the motivated attorney to oversee the much needed change in food safety policies at the USDA.

Known as a fair but fierce opponent, Marler draws as much criticism from the industrial meat crowd as he does from proponents of local agriculture, with strong stances on the need for inspection and a concern on the growing interest in raw milk.

Why select Marler as the head of the FSIS? Because he’s a champion of citizen’s rights to safe food and he knows the system better than anyone. He’s also willing to balance the concerns of the meat industry and local foods at the same time.

If the Obama Administration is serious about reforming America’s food safety system, there really is only one choice – Bill Marler for FSIS. Now’s the time.