Earth Eats: Real Food, Green Living

Senate Bill 510: Food Safety Modernization Act

Even in the midst of a salmonella outbreak, a bipartisan push to reform food safety regulation must still be run through the political meat grinders.

Tom Coburn and Harry Reid

Photo: SenateDemocrats and Center for American Progress Action Fund (flickr)

Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV)

Senate Bill 510

Passing federal legislation is never a matter of simple Ayes and Nays. No matter how beneficial or uncontroversial a bill seems, there is always some aspect of its passage that brings to mind the old saying “laws and sausages are the two things you never want to see made.”

Even in the midst of a salmonella outbreak that has sickened hundreds of people and forced the recall of more than half-a-billion eggs, a bipartisan push to reform food safety regulation must still be run through the political meat grinders.

Senate Bill 510, the “Food Safety Modernization Act” as the Senate version is titled, would provide sweeping changes to how food safety is managed in this country. It would address many of the food safety and enforcement issues being raised by this most recent outbreak of food-borne illnesses.

Political Jujitsu

Nevertheless, for more than two weeks Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) and Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) have gone head-to-head in an epic battle of political Jujitsu over the bill. Coburn has objected to a motion to allow the bill to proceed by unanimous consent — effectively filibustering it.

Coburn objects to the bill because of its price tag — if fully funded the program could cost as much as $15 billion a year — demanding that Democrats find enough cuts in other federal programs to offset the costs.

To his credit, Reid hasn’t backed down. He was quick to fire back that the act only authorizes Congress to develop and fund the reforms — the cuts don’t have to be determined until funding is allocated.

More importantly, Senator Reid filed for cloture last week. If 60 Senators support the maneuver, Reid can override the Coburn filibuster. This allows the bill to be brought to the floor in the lame duck session after the midterm elections. However, if Reid is unsuccessful and the bill doesn’t pass the Senate before the new Congress begins in January, the bill dies automatically.

Produce And Food Facilities Pose Risks

The egg outbreak is only the latest example of just how much food safety regulation reforms are needed.

We all remember last year when peanut butter became public enemy no. 1 after nearly 10 people died and more than 22,000 were sickened.

Or 2008, when seemingly harmless vegetables like tomatoes and peppers were indicated as the cause of a few thousand more illnesses. Then there was the spinach debacle from the year before that.

eggs in a bowl

Photo: cursedthing (flickr)

Senate Bill 510 passes, the FDA would be authorized to regulate sanitation, require preventive controls, access basic food safety records, set performance standards and measure the implementation of proper food safety procedures at food facilities. The FDA would also be granted the authority to issue mandatory recalls.

These outbreaks taught us that it isn’t just undercooked chicken and beef that pose a threat for food-borne illnesses. Produce and food facilities that process, package or manufacture foods carry heavy risks as well, but the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is woefully unable to effectively protect the public from these dangers.

The regulations on food facilities haven’t been updated in over 100 years, and when a problem is exposed the FDA lacks the authority to demand companies recall their products.

The Food Safety Modernization Act aims to address these shortcomings in current food safety regulations by granting the FDA with a number of new legislative authorities.

If the act passes in its current form the FDA would be authorized to regulate sanitation, require preventive controls, access basic food safety records, set performance standards and measure the implementation of proper food safety procedures at food facilities. The FDA would also be granted the authority to issue mandatory recalls.

Together, these regulatory advances could go a long way to successfully preventing future outbreaks.

Scale Appropriate

In addition to the focus on facilities that manufactures, processes, packs, or holds food for sale farmers who supply the nation with fresh produce would also be subject to a number of new regulations and recommended practices. The new rules haven’t been written yet, but are expected to focus on water quality, employee hygiene, the use of manure and compost as fertilizer and wildlife intrusions.

cow in a pasture

Photo: dirkjankraan.com (flickr)

Too many regulations for food safety are already on the books that feed into the get-big-or-get-out mentality of agriculture. Just ask the family at the farmers’ market selling their grass-fed beef out the back of the truck about the safety standards they have to meet to have their cattle processed and packaged.

Because farmers across the nation have warned against punitive rules and many feel they are already taking extreme steps to make sure their food was safe, FDA officials and bill supporters have professed their commitment to ensuring that the final bill is “scale-appropriate.”

The version of the Bill that passed the House last July fell far short of this goal, but a slew of amendments expected to be added to the Senate bill would bring the bill in line with what many small farm advocates consider an acceptable level of protection for small time producers and processing facilities. Specifically, the amendment package would direct the FDA to:

  1. Allow for the exemption of farms that engage in value added processing but are deemed as “low-risk” or “no-risk”
  2. Set farm-size appropriate regulations for growing produce
  3. Limit record-keeping requirements for farmers to the crop’s first point-of-sale.
  4. Exempt from record-keeping farm’s that direct-market their products to consumers and grocery stores or those that sell under their own brand.

Looking Ahead

There are very few weeks left for the Senate to act and the midterm elections only complicate the political calculus. Before these amendments surfaced, I wasn’t losing much sleep over the dubious outlook of passing the Food Safety Modernization Act.

Too many regulations for food safety are already on the books that feed into to the get-big-or-get-out mentality of agriculture. Just ask the family at the farmers’ market selling their grass-fed beef out the back of the truck about the safety standards they have to meet to have their cattle processed and packaged. But if these amendments pass, food safety advocates and defenders of small farms can both win.

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Lincoln Saunders

Lincoln grew up in a rural farming and fishing community on the Chesapeake Bay. After working in the Virginia legislature and as a political fundraiser Lincoln moved to Indiana to pursue a Masters of Public Affairs at IU and his true calling as an advocate for the revival of the family farm. He studies agricultural policy and rural economic development at the local, state and federal levels. He is a recovering fast food addict.

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