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Food Safety Bill, Conversation With Marion Nestle

Marion Nestle has been listening to the conversations in Washington and around the country related to the Food Safety Modernization Act (S. 510). In a recent post on her blog Food Politics, she acknowledges that "following the ongoing saga is like taking a graduate course in political science."

For those of us not getting an advanced degree in political science, she offers some straight talk on what this bill could mean for the food system, who opposes it and why, and whether or not it actually has a chance of making it to the president's desk.

Nestle is a Professor of Food Studies and Public Health at New York University. She is the author of many books, including "Food Politics" and "Feed Your Pet Right." Listen to her thoughts on raw milk, school food, and food labeling in part 1 and part 2 of the recent Earth Eats interview.

The Waiting Game

Annie Corrigan: The House approved this bill over one year ago, but we're just now hearing news of the Senate potentially voting on it after Thanksgiving. What was the hold up?

Marion Nestle: The elections more than anything else. This was a bill that went into the Senate with wide bipartisan support and just dragged on and dragged on. The story that I heard from any number of Washington insiders – I have no idea whether it's true or not – is that the Republicans didn't want the Democrats to get credit for passing it, especially not before the elections.

Cleaning Up Food

AC: It's easy to also relate the sudden urgency to pass this bill to all the recent food-borne illnesses and recalls. Is the bill built to help the FDA prevent future contamination issues?

MN: First of all, the pressure on it now is not because of the recalls. If it was about the recalls, it would have been passed a long time ago. The concern is always about politics and when the term runs out. The question is whether the Senate is going to pass this before the end of the session. If it doesn't, they have to start all over again. The whole thing is completely shameful.

What this bill does is to give the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) the authority to inspect places, to regulate places, and to recall foods that are found to be contaminated.

Depending on how you look at this, this is either a perfectly reasonable approach to food safety regulation. Or, you can look at it, as a lot of groups are now, as big government interfering into something government should have nothing to do with.

AC: Do you think we'll see fewer contamination issues as a result of this bill, or will it not have an effect?

MN: It will have an effect because it requires everyone who produces food to produce it under what are called "preventive controls," which are kind of science-based food safety procedures and plans. Companies that are using them now don't have problems with food safety or certainly have many fewer problems. It's the companies that don't use them or have them in place but don't pay any attention to them that are causing problems.

Amendments and Compromises

AC: The Tester-Hagan Amendment was added to protect small farms from having to comply with the bill. This is a point of contention with people on both sides. Let's talk about the good and bad points of making small farms exempt.

MN: I can understand why small farms and small producers are concerned about this. It's quite intimidating to have FDA inspectors arrive at your place, go through all your records, take swabs over all your surfaces, and treat you as though you're producing something that's incredibly harmful.

Actually, the whole thing reminds me of what's going on with TSA at airports these days. It's very much the same kind of thing, where people feel absolutely intruded upon. I have a great deal of sympathy for how it feels.

I do not have sympathy, however, for producing unsafe food that is likely to kill people if somebody eats it. That makes no sense to me. I know plenty of small producers who are producing food safely without it driving them crazy or costing them a fortune. They just do it.

If I were producing food, especially a high risk food, I would be up in the middle of the night worrying about how safe it was and whether I was going to harm my customers.

AC: Another part of this amendment redefines local. It states that "local" is a selling radius of 275 miles, which is an update from 400 miles as set up in the 2008 Farm Bill. This new concept of local affects areas of the country differently, because 275 miles in New England is very different from 275 miles in Arizona.

MN: 275 miles in New England covers practically all of it – it's the distance between New York and Boston and between New York and Washington, or pretty close to it. It's not my idea of local exactly, but for areas of the country that are much bigger it makes sense. It was a compromise as everything in that amendment is at the moment; it's a compromise to try to get it passed.

AC: Another compromise that was made was that the ban on BPA was taken out. Should lawmakers have fought harder to keep that in the bill?

MN: I thought it was a mistake to have it there, not that it isn't an important issue and one that requires a great deal of discussion. But for a bill that's this controversial, to throw it yet another issue with an industry behind it that doesn't want it there made no sense to me.

Consolidating Food Agencies

AC: Ideally, what else would be addressed in this food safety bill?

MN: I've been a supporter for decades of the single food safety agency idea that would bring together the food safety functions of the Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the FDA. The Department of Agriculture regulates meat and poultry. The FDA regulates vegetables. But the reason there's been so many problems with vegetables is because animal waste has contaminated those vegetables. We really need one agency looking at the system.

The U.S. Government Accountability Office has been proposing that for at least 20 years. I wish that congress had the nerve to take that up, but they decided from the get-go that it was politically impossible. So they started with a big compromise – let's fix the FDA. Fixing the FDA is a good idea, so let's get this bill passed and then work on the next step.

AC: Does this bill address the problem of animal waste and how it plays into food contamination?

MN: It addresses animal waste in the preventive controls. That's what the preventive controls are all about, keeping animal waste out of vegetables.

Immediate Future of the Bill

AC: Do you think it's going to pass? How long will we have to wait to get a vote?

MN: The story I've heard is that it's going to be taken up on November 29 and that is has enough votes to get it through and be signed. We'll see.

There are a lot of groups coming out in opposition that weren't there before because I think a lot of people see this as a lost cause and are moving in to make sure it stays lost. I hope they don't win.

The meat industry does not want this bill to pass. The health food industry and the dietary supplement industry do not want this bill to pass because they don't want to give FDA any more power than it already has. Any company that doesn't want FDA inspection doesn't want this bill to pass.

I think we need it. The system has been run on voluntary regulation, and we know that voluntary doesn't work.

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