'Locavores' criticize federal food safety bill

Wednesday, November 17, 2010 | 12:08 p.m. CST

WASHINGTON — A far-reaching food safety bill that could give the government more power to prevent foodborne illnesses has become a target of advocates for buying food produced locally.

They worry the legislation's requirements could force small farms out of business.

The opposition of these "locavores" and owners of small farms has become a sticking point in the Senate, which was to vote Wednesday on whether to consider the bill.

Supporters will need 60 votes to proceed on the bill because Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., has objected, saying the legislation's $1.4 billion cost isn't paid for.

While the bill is designed to give the Food and Drug Administration greater authority over the nation's food supply, opponents say it could bankrupt some small farms that don't have the means to comply with new standards the bill would impose.

Those standards could include registering food safety plans with the FDA and documenting efforts to show food is not contaminated as it is produced.

"It's going to put a nail in the coffin of our family food producers," said Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., who is planning an amendment to exempt some small farms who market food close to their operations. He says many small farms already comply with state and local regulations to keep food safe.

Food safety advocates are lobbying against the Tester amendment, saying his concerns are overblown and efforts to broadly exempt smaller farms could be misguided. They argue that the legislation, which would give the FDA more authority to recall tainted products, increase inspections of food processors and require producers to follow stricter standards for keeping food safe, is crucial in the wake of outbreaks of contaminated peanuts, eggs and produce that have sickened hundreds.

"Our view is that food should be safe no matter what the source is," said Erik Olson, director of food and consumer product safety at the Pew Health Group.

Olson and other advocates say that while small farms might not need to follow as many regulations as large corporations, the size of the farm is not as important as the safety of the food. Producers of leafy greens, tomatoes and other foods that more frequently cause illness should have to follow strict standards to keep contamination away from food no matter what the size of their operation, they say.

The two sides were working toward a compromise Tuesday. If the Senate votes to proceed, senators probably would then consider Tester's amendment as part of floor debate on the bill.

Whether the bill could make it to the president's desk during the brief lame-duck congressional session is unclear since the House passed a different version of the legislation in 2009. Even if the Senate passes the bill, the two pieces of legislation would have to be quickly reconciled before the end of this session sometime after Thanksgiving.

President Barack Obama issued a statement in support of the Senate bill Tuesday, saying the legislation would address "long-standing challenges" of the FDA by helping producers prevent foodborne outbreaks and giving the government more tools to keep food safe.

Recent outbreaks have exposed a lack of resources and authority at the FDA as the embattled agency has struggled to contain and trace contaminated products.

Currently, the FDA does not have the authority to order a recall and must negotiate recalls with the affected producers. The agency rarely inspects many food facilities and farms, visiting some every decade or so and others not at all.

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Mark Foecking November 18, 2010 | 3:01 a.m.

I'd argue that this bill will not fix the perceived "food safety problem".

CDC estimates that 76 million cases of food borne illness occur every year in the US (which has been questioned as high and out-of-date). If these highly publicized outbreaks have only sickened hundreds (it's actually thousands, but still), then there must be a lot of food borne illness happening from other sources, even if there's only one reported case in a hundred.

I'd think that a discrepancy like that might indicate that most food borne illness happens at random, through poor consumer and restaurant food handling and storage. This is something these regulations will not address.

A lot of times, legislators perceive a problem, and rush in with rules that sound on the surface like they will fix a problem. There's a lot of politics that surround food, and a lot of people like to blame large corporations for all of the problems. Populist politicians like to play on those perceptions, and we get bills like this, with all their unintended consequences.

These stringent new production standards and inspection requirements will raise the cost of food, but will likely not make it any safer. Let's pass laws that address the real problem (if we can), and if we can't, rejoice in the fact that few people in history have enjoyed such an abundant and safe food supply.


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