After months, no make that years, of development and back room quid pro quo, the U.S. Senate passed the Food Safety Modernization Act this past week, which is essentially one giant baby step toward securing our nation’s food supply and keeping consumers relatively safe. Don’t get me wrong, this is likely a very good thing as it gives the Food and Drug Administration, an agency that in recent decades focused more on policing medical products than ensuring the safety of food, both legs and reach to keep unsafe foods from reaching the population.
This bill gives the FDA the authority to test widely for dangerous pathogens and to recall contaminated food (surprisingly a form of authority the agency had not had previously) as well as the resources and authority to prevent food safety problems, rather than just reacting after hundreds, if not thousands, of people are puking their brains out. In addition, the Food Safety Modernization Act would also require the FDA to do more field work in the form of mandatory and more frequent inspections of large-scale, industrialized food production facilities (note: the Salmonella outbreak that occurred last summer found its origins coming from an Iowa egg farm that had never been inspected by the FDA).
This legislation, long hung up in the Senate (and still in need of final approval), seems like a no-brainer and a somewhat satisfying response to years of health safety scares and sluggish recall responses (like the 500 million lbs of meat voluntarily recalled last year months after the majority of it had been consumed). But like anything grand and sweeping in government, there are tides and forces that want to further weaken or stall the bill.
Much of the problem is political (imagine that!) as the latest news out of Washington (according to a New York Times report) is that the GOP is looking to block the bill, not so much because the bill itself is objectionable, but because this may be an opportunity to throw some political muscle around and get those Bush-era tax cuts reinstated (note: because of an arcane parliamentary mistake, the Food Safety bill must be sent back to the House of Representatives, which must approve it and return it to the Senate to be approved one more time – I don’t pretend to understand this).
According to the New York Times posting, “On Wednesday, (Republican leader, Mitch) McConnell and the 41 other Senate Republicans sent a letter to the majority leader, (Democrat) Harry Reid of Nevada, warning him that they would not agree to move forward on any legislation until the Senate deals with the issue of the expiring Bush-era tax cuts.” Let’s hope this little hiccup is not something that further stalls this progressive legislation.
More significant opposition to the bill has come from concern for the livelihood of small farmers and small food producers. The concern is that the mandatory regulations would be too costly for small businesses and would, in turn, put them out of business. This issue has been addressed by an amendment introduced by Senator Jon Tester of Montana, effectively makes the necessary exceptions for small producers selling their food to local restaurants, grocers or directly to consumers. Some critics, in reaction to this news, have expressed concern that allowing any exemptions for small-scale agriculture might threaten public health. We will see how this all shakes out.
The presumed good news is that, despite the roadblocks and backroom peddling, the issue of food safety is finally being addressed on the governmental level. Many who are skeptical of the FDA and its powers to affect real change are not seeing this as a revolution, but seeing it more as a way of empowering a largely ineffectual agency that has been unable to tell the difference between 500 million lbs of tainted and a whole in the ground. What is your feeling? Is this progress? Will you feel any safer knowing that the FDA has your back, so to speak? Is this legislation inherently dangerous and does it inspire false confidence?