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Senate Expected To Vote On Food Safety Bill Today

The Senate is expected to vote on the Food Safety Modernization Act (S. 510) this evening at 6:30pm.

Opposition To The Bill

Agricultural trade groups, including Produce Marketing Association and United Egg Producers, came out last week in opposition to the bill, and specifically to Sen. John Tester's amendment exempting small farms and producers. The group of twenty food producers sent a letter to the chairman and ranking member of the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee:

Comments from Senator Tester and supporters are now making it abundantly clear that their cause is not to argue that small farms pose less risk, but to wage an ideological war against the vast majority of American farmers that seeks to feed 300 million Americans.

Food author and blogger Marion Nestle says any industry that does not want FDA inspection does not want this bill to pass: the meat industry, the health food industry, and the dietary supplement industry.

The bill's most outspoken opponent in the Senate is Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK). He says food scares, like the recent salmonella outbreak in eggs, encourage politicians to "overreact to crisis and impose new and invasive regulations." The fact that food safety laws have not been updated in nearly a century supports his claim that the free market drives innovation and improved safety, not government. He will be offering two amendments: an alternative to the food safety bill and a moratorium on legislative earmarks.

Famous Supporters

In a Sunday Op-Ed in the New York Times, Michael Pollan and Eric Schlosser addressed many of the concerns posed by the opposition in relation to the small farm exemption.

They assert that large producers are to blame for high-profile outbreaks, not small farmers selling food at local farmers' markets. Additionally, one estimate claims that only a small fraction of food on the market would be exempt under the Tester amendment. "Does the food industry really want to sabotage an effort to ensure the safety of 99 percent of that marketplace because it is so deeply concerned about under-regulation of 1 percent?"

As for concerns regarding the cost of the bill, a recent study sponsored by the Produce Safety Project at Georgetown University finds that foodborne illnesses cost the U.S. $152 yearly in health costs, workplace and other economic losses. Pollan and Schlosser say the $300 million of spending proposed by the food safety bill is a bargain by comparison.

The Power Of Government

Despite opponents' objections, the bill is expected to easily receive 51 votes to pass the full Senate. Then, according to Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA), the House has agreed to take up and pass the Senate-version of the bill, sending it finally to the president to be signed into law.

Whether or not this will happen is yet to be seen. Nestle acknowledges the differences of opinions:

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.

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