What the Food Safety Bill Could Mean for You and Your Broccoli

The FDA gets recall power, small farmers and foodies get a pass, and baby bottles stay possibly poisoned

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The food safety bill passed Tuesday by the Senate is likely to be big news among farmers and soccer moms alike. Fueled in part by the giant, dangerous, and rather embarrassing egg recall this past summer, the bill revises and expands FDA regulatory authority in a major way. If the bill goes through as is--and the Wire already brought you some reasons why that might not happen--here's what you have to look forward to. Foodies, envirobloggers, and irritated conservatives have already laid out the pros and cons of the bill in detail:

  • The FDA Now Has Recall Power  "Yes, the FDA--the agency charged with keep America's sprawling food system safe--has never had the power to order a recall of contaminated food. I was surprised to learn that too," admits Time's Bryan Walsh. Explains Sarah Parsons at Change.org: "Under current laws, the FDA can only ask companies to issue voluntary recalls--a 'Pretty-please-don't-make-us-sick' kind of tactic."
  • Enhanced Food Tracking, and Imports Have New Standards  The bill "will require better record-keeping from food producers," says Bryan Walsh. "It will also hold imported food to the same standards for inspection that we hold domestically produced food," adds Brian Merchant at the descriptively named Treehugger. "There's no reason we shouldn't have had this policy in place for, like, always."
  • We Really Needed This  It's "the first major bill to strengthen food safety protections in 70 years," writes NPR's April Fulton. It "could serve to drastically reduce the number of salmonella outbreaks the nation experiences. As of now, that number is actually rising," points out
    Brian Merchant. "This bill will do a reasonably good job of singling out the biggest threats to American food safety--under-inspected industrial farms, mass shipments of foods from abroad that received too-lax oversight--and then do a reasonably good job of addressing them with advanced inspection techniques."
  • No, We Didn't  Conservative Michelle Malkin calls it "a new Big Foodie bill opposed by a diverse coalition of limited government activists, small family farmers, and left-leaning 'locovores.'" She gives her readers the names of the "15 power-grabby Republicans who voted for it."
  • Helpful: It Lets Small Farmers Off the Hook  Sarah Parsons at Change.org addresses a matter some of those "left-leaning 'locovores'" have been concerned about: the effect on small-scale farmers (A.K. Streeter devoted an entire post at Treehugger to the bill's possible effect on those producing and consuming raw milk). Here's the good news for those folks:
Of particular importance to sustainable foodies is the Tester-Hagan amendment, a measure that exempts small farmers and producers from meeting some of S. 510's requirements. The reasoning goes that small producers--like those that sell at local farmers' markets--don't have the man-power or money to jump through legislative hurdles, nor are they the ones responsible for creating massive food contamination outbreaks. Therefore, they shouldn't be obligated to meet the same criteria as multi-million-dollar factory farms and food processing facilities.
  • Baby Bottles Still a Concern  NPR's April Fulton highlights a less publicized "deal" in which senators decided "to reject a proposal to ban bisphenol-A--a controversial chemical commonly found in plastics--from baby bottles. The European Union and Canada have already taken steps to do that."
  • Bill Attacks Symptoms, Not Cause  This is a big criticism of the bill from multiple quarters. "The U.S. may struggle with food safety--and the environmental ills associated with corporate agriculture--as long as farming remains as concentrated as it is now," writes Bryan Walsh. "As the food industry never ceases to point out, concentration can have economic advantages in agriculture just as it might in industry. But there shouldn't be much doubt that a hyper-concentrated food sector is one that is vulnerable--for contamination, for bio-terrorism, even for plant and animal disease." Environmental site Grist's Tom Philpott expands on this topic:
In a sense, I fear, our food-safety regime is lurching along the path that sees bacteria itself as a problem to be wiped out, rather than focusing on specific practices that create niches for bacteria that are known to be harmful. To see what I mean, take a hard look at the U.S. egg industry, which has pretty much exposed itself as a pathogen-concentrating disaster this year. For the latest gory details, see this Humane Society exposé about Cal-Maine, putatively the nation's largest egg operation. In the end, S. 510 might force huge egg operations to sterilize their eggs before they reach the shelf or vaccinate their hens against salmonella--a problematic response, in my view--but it won't force them to stop cramming hens tightly together in cages.
  • A Bit of History  The House passed their version way before the Senate managed to deal with the bill, and the tale's not over yet. "It's hardly the first time the sweeping food safety legislation has stalled for years," points out Peter Smith at Good. "The Pure Food and Drugs Act was introduced in 1889, and languished for 17 years until the publication of Upton Sinclair;s The Jungle pushed forward the Meat Inspection Act in 1906."
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