Wednesday, March 11, 2009

A proposed law that may mean the death of small farms and farmers markets and organic farming? (H.R. 875)

H.R. 875: Food Safety Modernization Act of 2009 obviously is playing on the fears raised by recent food safety disasters, and there is a ruckus brewing in some blogs raising alarm over this proposed law. Such as: "Change We Can Believe In: How About the End of Farmers Markets? Say Hello to H.R. 875: Food Safety Modernization Act of 2009" ...What this will do is force anyone who produces food of any kind, and then transports it to a different location for sale, to register with a new federal agency called the “Food Safety Administration.” Even growers who sell just fruit and/or vegetables at farmers markets would not only have to register, but they would be subject inspections by federal agents of their property and all records related to food production.... with the result that providers at farmers markets will be priced out of existence. A commenter on that blog suggested: "I can’t help think this is a prelude (one of many, no doubt) to America’s “harmonizing” (I think that’s the term) with Codex Alimentarius.". If you don't know, Codex Alimentarius is a program some say is being pushed by big industry to control all food and health supplements for some nefarious purpose. While I found that blog post to be overly alarmist I do have concern over big industry pushing down our throats industrialized stuff that serves their needs and isn't necessarily healthy. So let's take a look at this.

The bill defines a proposed "Food Safety Administration" because for example: "the safety of the food supply of the United States is vital to the public health, to public confidence in the food supply, and to the success of the food sector of the Nation’s economy". Yes of course food safety is very important. The purposes include: "(A) regulate food safety and labeling to strengthen the protection of the public health; (B) ensure that food establishments fulfill their responsibility to process, store, hold, and transport food in a manner that protects the public health of all people in the United States; (C) lead an integrated, systemwide approach to food safety and to make more effective and efficient use of resources to prevent food-borne illness; (D) provide a single focal point within the Department of Health and Human Services for food safety leadership, both nationally and internationally; and (E) provide an integrated food safety research capability, including internally generated, scientifically and statistically valid studies, in cooperation with academic institutions and other scientific entities of the Federal and State governments;" Further the act specifies transferring "various components of the Food and Drug Administration and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration" into this new Food Safety Administration. In other words this is a reshaping of the FDA into a new and larger role.

The definitions include five categories of food establishments which are to be regulated and the various contaminants which will be regulated. Recall that this proposal comes in the wake of a few mass poisonings coming from unsafe food being distributed over the last few years. Contaminated food has been causing death and fear for several years now. Obviously the FDA as it exists has failed in some way to ensure our safety. But I wonder whether the remedies in this bill are the best solution?

SEC. 202. REGISTRATION OF FOOD ESTABLISHMENTS AND FOREIGN FOOD ESTABLISHMENTS: Requires the registration of "Any food establishment or foreign food establishment engaged in manufacturing, processing, packing, or holding food for consumption in the United States shall register annually with the Administrator." Registration seems to be mostly about recording contact addresses and phone numbers. The Administrator can suspend a registered food establishment, there are procedures for reestablishing registration, but it doesn't describe what effect comes from being suspended.

SEC. 203. PREVENTIVE PROCESS CONTROLS TO REDUCE ADULTERATION OF FOOD: Requires the Food Safety Administration to set up regulations that food establishments must meet. This includes sanitation plans, record keeping, labeling, sampling, etc.

SEC. 204. PERFORMANCE STANDARDS FOR CONTAMINANTS IN FOOD: Requires the Food Safety Administration establish standards giving acceptable levels of contaminants. Note that there are existing FDA rules of this sort. It also includes inspections, the ability to seize nonconformant food, and I suppose goes back to the possibility of suspending registration mentioned above.

SEC. 205. INSPECTIONS OF FOOD ESTABLISHMENTS: Requires the Food Safety Administration set up an inspections program.

SEC. 206. FOOD PRODUCTION FACILITIES: Grants the Food Safety Administration authority to "(1) visit and inspect food production facilities in the United States and in foreign countries to determine if they are operating in compliance with the requirements of the food safety law; (2) review food safety records as required to be kept by the Administrator under section 210 and for other food safety purposes; (3) set good practice standards to protect the public and animal health and promote food safety; (4) conduct monitoring and surveillance of animals, plants, products, or the environment, as appropriate; and (5) collect and maintain information relevant to public health and farm practices."

SEC. 207. FEDERAL AND STATE COOPERATION: Calls for greater national and state level cooperation to "strengthen and expand food-borne illness surveillance systems to-- (A) inform and evaluate efforts to prevent food-borne illness; and (B) enhance the identification and investigation of, and response to, food-borne illness outbreaks." To "leverage and enhance the food safety capacity and roles of State and local agencies and integrate State and local agencies as fully as possible into national food safety efforts". In other words this section seems to be about federalizing local authorities, rather than maintaining a separation of national efforts from local efforts.

SEC. 208. IMPORTS: The act is to cover all imported food. A definition at the beginning of the bill defines "Foreign Food Establishment" as a "Food establishment" located outside the U.S. which sends food for sale inside the U.S. Clearly some of the food safety scares of recent years began in foreign countries.

SEC. 210. TRACEBACK REQUIREMENTS: Requires the the Food Safety Administration to "establish a national traceability system that enables the Administrator to retrieve the history, use, and location of an article of food through all stages of its production, processing, and distribution." This defines data formats for computerized records and a system for storing and retrieving records about items of food. Sounds like Big Brother being applied to food. At the same time an issue in the recent food safety scares has been the question over where the food actually came from. Take the spinach scare for example. It focused on the plastic bags of spinach, and it was unclear which field(s) the spinach came from because the food processors buy spinach from several fields, cut the leaves off the stems, mix them all together, then bag the spinach. It's like shuffling several identical decks of cards together, and then trying to put the cards back into their original decks.

SEC. 211. ACCREDITED LABORATORIES: Sets up a registration process and standards for laboratories to partake in the regulation being setup.

There's a lot more to this but the above gives the general tone of this proposed law.

The law sounds reasonable to me on the face of it. Establishment and enforcement of regulations are a good thing. Remember that the Food and Drug Administration was established 100 years ago in the wake of a food safety scare that came in the wake of Upton Sinclair's book The Jungle. That book chronicled the scary conditions in meat packing houses of that era, such as the use of rats in making sausage and generally lax enforcement procedures and rampant bribery.

I wonder if todays food scares has more to do with the last 8 years of Bush Administration gutting all forms of government regulation and oversight. Supposedly the FDA had to let go of many food inspectors. Perhaps the simpler solution is to rehire food inspectors. At the same time there are new threats from globalization of the food supply, and food being imported from foreign lands that have less regulation.

But let's get back to the alarming aspects of this bill. I'll turn to other bloggers and their analysis:

H.R. 875 Food Safety Modernization Act Of 2009 This is an excellent walk-through of the bill from the perspective of an individual gardener who grows food for his own consumption. Would this law apply to individual gardeners?

The problem here is in the definitions section which has overly broad or overly vague definitions that give a wide scope to the Food Safety Administration. A CATEGORY 4 FOOD ESTABLISHMENT is "a food establishment that processes all other categories of food products not described in paragraphs (5) through (7)." Uh, this means that every single last organization which processes and/or provides food is to be regulated by this new administration. "Food" is also overly broadly defined as "intended to be used for food or drink for a human or an animal and components thereof." And, finally, " (14) FOOD PRODUCTION FACILITY- The term ‘food production facility’ means any farm, ranch, orchard, vineyard, aquaculture facility, or confined animal-feeding operation."

This means that the nice sounding regulations and requirements will apply to far more organizations than it applies to today.

Such as farmers markets. Maybe even individual gardeners.

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