Is the Food Safety Bill a Blessing or a Corporatist Curse?

  • Published on December 9th, 2010

For a few days it looked like the controversial Food Safety Modernization Act (S 510) was dead in the water. Technical issues meant it was unlikely to make it through both houses in the last, crazy days of the current Congress.

But it now appears that it WILL make it through – it’s been attached in whole to the Continuing Resolution, the $1 trillion-dollar bill that funds the entire government through next September. Since intra-party sniping shot down the regular budget bills that should have been passed by now, a Continuing Resolution is the only way to keep the government running. It ought to pass before the politicians go home for the holidays, and now, if it does, the Food Safety Modernization Act gets dragged across the finish line with it.

The bill was initially meant to deal with food safety issues like the recent tomato, egg and beef recalls, and prevent future outbreaks. But as always, lobbyists had a hand in writing the bill, and most Congressional staffers are very far removed from the needs of the average American with a backyard kitchen garden.

Rep. James McGovern (D-MA) told Food Safety News, “I’m baffled by the controversy. Anyone who’s been watching remembers recall after recall after recall.” And yet the controversy continues…

Is this a good thing?

If you’re like me, you’ve heard a lot of crazy talk about the FSMA. “It’s going to protect our children from the big corporate farms.” “No! It’s going to allow the big corporate farms to take over the world!” “It’ll ban seed saving so we’ll have to buy all of our seeds from Monsanto!” “No, it’s perfectly fine, nothing to see here,  trust our friends in the government.”

So which is it? Or, (as with most things) is it a little of both?

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said, “While America has one of the safest and most abundant food supplies in the world, each year one in four people are sickened by food-borne illness and as many as 5,000 people die from food poisoning.” Juxtaposing those two statements takes a special kind of nerve. But will this bill do anything at all to deal with the reality of food safety?

I’m going to pull a few sources here, and hopefully we can get to the bottom of this.

On the bright side

Food expert Michael Pollan calls this “The best opportunity in a generation to improve the safety of the American food supply,” noting:

  • The bill would, for the first time, give the F.D.A., which oversees 80 percent of the nation’s food, the authority to test widely for dangerous pathogens and to recall contaminated food.
  • The agency would finally have the resources and authority to prevent food safety problems, rather than respond only after people have become ill.
  • The bill would also require more frequent inspections of large-scale, high-risk food-production plants.
  • Last summer, when thousands of people were infected with salmonella from filthy, vermin-infested henhouses in Iowa, Americans were outraged to learn that the F.D.A. had never conducted a food safety inspection at these huge operations that produce billions of eggs a year. The new rules might have kept those people – mainly small children and the elderly – from getting sick.
  • The law would also help to protect Americans from unsafe food produced overseas: for the first time, imported foods would be subject to the same standards as those made in the United States.

And while critics of the bill say it will cost $300 million a year, Pollan points out that the cost of food-born illness is $152 billion. Seems like a bargain.

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About the Author

Jeremy Bloom is the Editor of RedGreenAndBlue. He lives in New York, where he combines his passion for the environment with his passion for film, and is working on making the world a better place.