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Legislation Aims to Improve Food Safety, Small Producers Object to One-Size-Fits-All Approach

(Beyond Pesticides, June 2, 2009) U.S. Representative Henry Waxman (D-CA), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, along with Chair Emeritus John D. Dingell (D-MI), and Reps. Frank Pallone (D-NY), Bart Stupak (D-MI), Diana DeGette (D-CO) and Betty Sutton (D-OH), released a “discussion draft” of the Food Safety Enhancement Act of 2009, which they say will improve food safety by making the food supply more transparent, inspections of food facilities more frequent and requiring manufacturers to take steps to prevent food-borne illnesses. Sustainable agriculture advocates warn that a one-size-fits-all approach would require expensive investments beyond the reach of most small farms and processors, and could potentially put some out of business. The Committee has scheduled a legislative hearing for June 3, 2009.

The draft language is largely based on the food provisions of H.R. 759, the Food and Drug Administration Globalization Act of 2009, introduced in January by Reps. Dingell, Stupak, and Pallone. The Food Safety Enhancement Act of 2009 incorporates technical assistance from the Obama Administration as well as other stakeholders. According to Rep. Waxman, the legislation grants the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) the authorities and resources it needs to better ensure the safety of the nation’s food supply.

“The current state of our food safety system is dangerous not just for the American public, but also for the food industry itself,” said Rep. Waxman, Chair of the Energy and Commerce Committee. “This bill recognizes that the hallmark of strong food safety legislation must be a shared responsibility for food safety oversight between FDA and industry. This legislation will go a long way toward restoring Americans’ confidence in our food supply.”

Food Safety Enhancement Act of 2009 summary:

• Creates an up-to-date registry of all food facilities serving American consumers, requiring all facilities operating within the U.S. or importing food to the U.S. to register with the FDA annually.
• Generates resources to support FDA oversight of food safety through an annual registration fee of $1,000 as well as requiring facilities to pay for FDA’s costs associated with reinspections and food recalls.
• Requires all facilities operating within the U.S. or importing food to the U.S. to implement safety plans that identify and protect against food hazards.
• Requires safety plans for fresh produce.
• Increases inspections of food facilities from six to 18 months for high risk facilities to three to four years for low risk facilities.
• Enhances FDA’s ability to trace the origin of tainted food in the event of an outbreak of foodborne illness through electronic record-keeping.
• Allows FDA to require food to be certified as meeting all U.S. food safety requirements by the government of the country from which the article originated or by certain qualified third parties.
• Expands laboratory testing capacity.
• Provides FDA new authority to issue mandatory recalls of tainted foods, strengthens criminal penalties and establishes civil monetary penalties that FDA may impose on food facilities that fail to comply with safety requirements.
• Permits FDA to develop voluntary security guidelines for imported foods.
• Enhances FDA’s ability to assure the safety of new infant formulas before they go on the market.
• Directs the Secretary to include food in an active surveillance system to assess more accurately the frequency and sources of human illness.
• Enhances FDA’s ability to block unsafe food from entering the food supply.
• Requires FDA to conduct a safety review of the use of carbon monoxide in meat, poultry, and seafood products.
• Requires posting on FDA’s website of documentation submitted to FDA in support of a “generally recognized as safe” (GRAS) notification.
• Requires country-of-origin labeling and disclosure.

While supporting steps to ensure a safe food system, the public health and sustainable agriculture communities point out a handful of problems with the draft language. In terms of protecting public health, advocates are disappointed that the bill does not require companies to conduct microbial testing for pathogens and report positive results to FDA. Others point out that that the greatest public health threats come from concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), and that society could benefit most from CAFO-specific regulations.

Others oppose the flat $1,000 fee, which will have a far greater impact on a small local processor that only distributes locally than a multinational company with millions in sales. Mark Schonbeck from the Virginia Association for Biological Farming suggests a small $50 flat fee plus a percentage of annual total dollar value of product above $100,000 per year. He points out that even the large scale growers and packers were advocating a fee for Good Agricultural Practices (GAPs) certification audit based on volume. “They suggested 1.5 cents per case, so that a small farmer selling 1,000 cases of greens would only pay $15, and a large farm selling 1,000,000 cases would pay $15,000, which they could afford.”

Elizabeth Henderson of Peacework Organic Farm believes that the regulations should be voluntary for family-scale farmers. “Each farm should develop its own food safety plan based on its own risks,” Ms. Henderson explains. “For certified organic producers part of this has already been completed in our organic farm plans. An excellent public program for food safety would provide assistance to farms in creating these plans, and then support the implementation of the plans with payment or cost-share for making the improvements that would make the farm safer…Farms that sell direct and are not certified could invite their customers to come and see for themselves, as is offered in the NOFA-NY Farmers Pledge. Let’s find a way to make it clear to the public that we support food safety, but hold off the mandatory programs.”

Beyond Pesticides advocates choosing local, fairly traded organic goods whenever possible. See Buying Organic Products (on a budget) and Beyond Pesticides’ Organic Agriculture pages for more information.


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