(Hmmm, I have a feeling there are a lot of misdirected South Park fans suddenly finding themselves reading a sustainable food blog....)
This Sunday's New York Times featured an op-ed that defended the apparently quite contentious Food Safety Modernization Bill. (What's that? Yes, though I spent Thanksgiving weekend in New York City, where the paper is available on every street corner, I didn't have a chance to read the article until today.) It was a hotly debated piece of legislation ostensibly because of criteria that some argued would unfairly penalize some small-scale producers. What? No! We need to help small, local producers who are doing things responsibly, who focus on quality over quantity! They're not the ones behind the giant food recalls in recent decades! Most of them only sell within a few hundred miles and any questionable items can be easily traced back to the source.
The anti-small-farm bias of the bill had been played up in recent weeks and I was a little uncertain about how I felt -- not that food safety was unimportant, but I had been concerned about how small farms would be able to make the necessary modifications in their systems and not lose the farm, so to speak, in the process of complying with more stringent standards. (I feared something akin to the passing of USDA organic certification standards a few years ago whose cost and inspection regimens have, at least according to a number of farmers I spoke and worked with around the country, been a major barrier to more widespread organically-certified produce.) What I hadn't known before co-authors Eric Schlosser and Michael Pollan brought it up is that concerns about the small farmers affected by prohibitive costs and regulations had already been addressed by an amendment that allowed for state and local government control of these matters. The bill passed yesterday, and it's a good thing, too: it finally gives the US Food and Drug Administration the funding and authority to keep our food safe.
Admittedly my understanding of who does what in the USDA vs. the FDA is a little fuzzy. But then, my friends who work at both organizations are also a little fuzzy on who is responsible for what (and why). Food safety? Well, that's the FDA's role... usually. (The best explanation I have yet to hear about the two organizations is actually here.) As far as I can piece together, the USDA is much larger and handles all things food except nutritional labeling and food safety -- these fall under the purview of the FDA. Why, then, has this very important enforcement agency been given so little power to enforce food safety violations? I'd gotten the impression when reading Schlosser's (in)famous Fast Food Nation a few years ago that food safety was a major concern in our country. I just kind of figured that someone with political clout and a conscience had read the book, too. I was mortified to learn in this recent op-ed that only with the passing of this new food safety legislation do the USDA (for meat, poultry, and eggs) and the FDA (for all other food products) finally have the power to enforce recalls for contaminated food. Yes, folks, prior to this, the majority of recalls were not mandatory but simply requested. (WHAT?? Yes, requested.) A voluntary recall. "Please, can you recall those half a billion contaminated eggs from grocery stores around the country? No? Pretty please?"
Now let's look at who is against effective food safety enforcement: large-scale producers, who also happen to be the ones behind repeated food safety violations. (And, of course, the politicians who are financed by them.) Hmmm, how interesting. Yes, and they also argue that these new requirements are too... costly. Please. If you want to talk about unreasonable requirements and atrocious spending, try going through one of the new fancy(under)pants scanning booths at the airport. And at $150,000 per unit, I wonder how the budget for the high-tech groin inspection devices compares to that for improved food safety. (Sorry, I guess I'm still grumpy after being manhandled during my travel back from Vegas a few weeks ago where I was helping my brother launch his small business.)
For the record, I do think that safety -- in airports, in our food system, on bicycles (ahem, wear a helmet) -- is important and needs to be handled appropriately by the government to protect its citizens. The prevention-vs-treatment costs cited in the NY Times article are pretty compelling: $300 million for improved food-borne illness prevention as compared with $152 billion spent for treatment. Per year. Seems like a no brainer to me. But who knows, maybe the bill's opponents are using some kind of new math (similar to the calculations that suggest tax cuts for the wealthy will stimulate the economy).