by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: Legislation

Dec 1 2010

Senate passes food safety bill, 73 to 25

In case you missed it (and how could you?), the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act passed the Senate yesterday by a huge majority.  Thanks to Beth Bainbridge for sending me this link to a map of how the votes went—a graphic, interactive illustration of partisan politics in action.

If you would like to know what the bill really says as opposed to the mythology, you can read a short Summary , or take a look at the entire bill.  And here’s FoodSafetyNews on some of those details.

The next steps: (1) reconciliation with the House version passed a year ago July, and (2) submission of the joint version to President Obama for signature.  This has to be done before this session of Congress expires in just a few weeks.

By all reports, reconciliation will not be so easy.  FoodSafetyNews explains all the things that can derail the bill between now and then, and the list is long and weird (who ever heard of “blue-slipping,” for example?).

Some folks are happy about the Senate action, but some most definitely are not.  FoodSafetyNews summarizes the reactions, as does the New York Times account.

Time is short.  The stakes are high.  Keep fingers crossed.

Nov 29 2010

Never enough about S.510. Today’s the day!

Update 3:30 p.m.  Final Senate vote postponed until 9:00 a.m. tomorrow!

Today, the Senate is supposed to deal—at last—with S.510, the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act.  Here’s what I’m told is likely to happen (it gives me a headache just to think about it):

  • 4:00 pm EST: Senate resumes discussion of S.510.
  • 6:30 pm: Senate proceeds to cloture vote on the substitute amendment to S.510.
  • Cloture is invoked.
  • Post-cloture and upon the use or yielding back of the time allotted in the agreement (1 hour for motions re: 1099 and 4 hours for Coburn motions), the Senate will proceed to vote on the motions in the following order: (1) Johanns (1099 forms–the repeal on a tax burden on small businesses), (2) Baucus (1099 forms), (3) Coburn (earmarks), (4) Coburn (substitute)
  • Once those are disposed of, Senate votes on passage of the bill, as amended.
  • Observers expect all of this to last well into the night.
  • Note: Because all of the amendments are offered as motions to suspend the rules, they require a 2/3rds vote. Final passage requires 51. Cloture requires 60.

And in case your mind is still not made up about how this should go, take a look at today’s commentaries:

Michael Pollan and Eric Schlosser have an op-ed in the New York Times: A Stale Food Fight:

In the last week, agricultural trade groups, from the Produce Marketing Association to the United Egg Producers, have come out against the bill, ostensibly on the grounds that the small farms now partially exempted would pose a food safety threat. (Note that these small farms will continue to be regulated under state and local laws.) It is hard to escape the conclusion that these industry groups never much liked the new rules in the first place. They just didn’t dare come out against them publicly, not when 80 percent of Americans support strengthening the F.D.A.’s authority to regulate food.

And FoodSafetyNews, ever on the job, has three pieces on the bill today (I’m referred to in a couple of them):

With a little luck, the Senate will pass the bill tonight, large and small farms will comply with its provisions, and our food supply will be safer as a result.  One can always dream.

Additions: a few more editorial comments, all in favor of passing S.510.

The Sacramento Bee editorial (11-25)

The Minneapolis Star Tribune (11-27)

The Bemidji (MN) Pioneer (11-28)

The Baltimore Sun (11-28 and the 29th in some editions)

New York Times editorial (11-16)

USA Today (11-23)

Las Vegas Sun (11-23)

Lexington (KY) Herald Leader (11-23)

Nov 24 2010

Facts and rumors: the current status of S. 510

Following the ongoing saga of S. 510, the Food Safety Modernization Act, is like taking a graduate course in political science.   And sociology graduate students everywhere should be writing dissertations on how a bill designed to help protect the public from food hazards like Salmonella and E. coli O157:H7  became a flashpoint for debates about the role of government in personal choice.

Let’s start with the rumors.   I’m hearing from sources inside the Beltway that the Senate and House have agreed to pass S. 510 in part because they can use it to get something else they want: repeal of an annoying provision in the health care reform act passed last spring that requires 1099 tax reports for business purchases.

The Senate is said to be dealing with S. 510 late in the afternoon or early evening of Monday, November 29.  It is supposed to work like this:

  • There will be a cloture motion, which will pass with 60 votes.
  • The Senate will agree that all amendments to S. 510 will require 67 votes.
  • Senator Coburn will offer amendments, but they will not get 67 votes.
  • The Senate will add language repealing the 1099 tax provision.
  • The Senate will pass the bill (this needs 51 votes)
  • The House will agree to accept the Senate bill as written with no changes.
  • The bill will get sent to President Obama to sign before Congress adjourns.
  • The President will sign the bill.

Maybe, but this does not sound like a done deal to me.  For one thing, opposition to S. 510 seems to be getting noisier.  Remember the adage “politics makes strange bedfellows?”  Take a look at the groups who now oppose the bill, united in their opposition to giving the FDA or government any additional authority:

  • The health food industry
  • The dietary supplement industry
  • The meat industry: American Meat Institute, Cattlemen’s Association, etc.
  • The Tea Party
  • The raw milk community and its legal arm, the Farmer to Consumer Legal Defense Fund
  • Some, but by no means all, small farmers and advocates for them

Missing from this list is Big Agriculture, an absence explained by the fact that the bill does not apply to feed commodities or to seeds.

As for the Tester amendment exempting small farms from certain provisions of the bill: It is opposed by 20 organizations of vegetable growers, and is also is likely to be opposed by companies like Monsanto which do not want the FDA making safety decisions based on size or anything else except risk.

Caroline Scott-Thomas writes in FoodNavigator-USA that all food producers, large and small, should be producing food safely, not least because bacteria do not care how big a farm might be: 

Think about it: If a large-scale cheese maker refused to recall potentially tainted products for financial reasons, as the Estrella Family Creamery is doing, would it inspire dewy-eyed sympathy? I doubt it.

I agree, and also with the comments of Bob Whitaker, the Produce Marketing Association’s Chief Science Officer, who points out that plenty of growers are already using preventive controls like the ones requires by S.510:

There are a lot of very small growers who are already doing this.  I think there is plenty of evidence where growers have already made this a priority and they have been able to do so in a pretty innovative manner. There is a cost to this…But it doesn’t have to be overwhelmingly expensive. A lot of this is common sense.  People need to dive in and understand that this is food and you have to take responsibility for the safety of our food, to the extent that you can… Consumers have to be confident that our products are safe.

I’ve seen this too.  Lots of small food producers do everything they can to reduce microbial risks.  They don’t need a government agency to tell them what to do.

Others, however, won’t take safety steps unless forced to.  That’s why we need this bill to pass.

In the meantime, the debate continues. USA Today, long concerned about food safety, favors the bill. Senator Coburn, however, does not.

Happy Thanksgiving holiday, everyone.

And special thanks to Carol Tucker Foreman of Consumer Federation of America for cluing me in on the latest developments.

Addition: Safe Tables Our Priority (STOP), a food safety advocacy group formed originally by parents of children harmed by eating fast-food hamburgers, strongly favors S. 51o.  Under its auspices, 80 victims of foodborne illness have written a letter to the Senate in the hope that this will help solidify support for passing this bill.

Many of us have traveled to Washington D.C. numerous times to meet with lawmakers, sharing our personal stories as to why stronger food safety laws are necessary; others of us have written opinion pieces, letters, and blog entries urging action on this important legislation. S. 510 would be the first major overhaul of the FDA’s food-safety authorities in decades. It is time to pass this legislation.

Nov 20 2010

Another reason to pass S. 510

Today’s New York Times has a story about the travails of the Estrella Family Creamery, makers of artisanal cheeses found repeatedly by the FDA to be contaminated with Listeria.

The FDA asked for a recall.  Estrella refused.

Whether Estrella should be considered heroic for fighting Big Government, as the article suggests, or instead is allowing dangerous products to go into the marketplace depends on point of view.

Mine is that every producer—large and small—who makes food should be producing it safely under a HACCP plan or its equivalent.  If the product carries special risks, as cheeses sometimes do, the producer ought to be testing to make sure it is safe.

I have visited plenty of artisanal makers of raw and Pasteurized cheeses who produce them safely.  These makers worry constantly about how to make sure that their cheeses are—and stay—safe.

If you have a strong immune system and are not pregnant, Listeria is unlikely to make you sick.  If not, however, watch out: Listeria can be fatal, especially to unborn infants.

In a column I wrote for the San Francisco Chronicle last March, I responded to a question about Listeria from a reader who lost a baby after eating a Listeria-contaminated Pasteurized cheese (the contamination must have occurred later). See correction below.

Listeria has the terrifying property of flourishing at refrigerator temperatures.  In this particular case, neither Pasteurization nor refrigeration were enough to save her baby.

As I said in my column:

Without federal requirements, you are on your own to keep yourself and your unborn infant safe from food pathogens, especially Listeria…. Listeria preferentially affects pregnant women. If you are pregnant and want to stay pregnant, you must avoid Listeria.  This will not be easy.  Listeria is widely dispersed in foods. Infections from it may be rare, but they are deadly. Listeria kills a shocking 25 percent of those it infects and is particularly lethal to fetuses….With so much at stake, and so many other food choices available, why take chances?

That is why allowing Listeria-contaminated cheeses into the food supply is not a good idea.  It is also why the FDA is so concerned that Listeria-contaminated foods do not get into the food supply.

This cheesemaker’s refusal to recall Listeria-contaminated products is another reason why so many of us who care deeply about food safety want the Senate to get busy and pass S.510.

Correction: the writer of that letter has written to explain that the source of her Listeria infection was never determined.  She had eaten a Pasteurized Stilton cheese, a goat cheese, and a rare steak among other suspected foods but none was proven to be the source.  For the record, the CDC says to prevent Listeria, pregnant women should avoid eating:

  • Hot dogs, luncheon meats, or deli meats (unless reheated to steaming hot).
  • Soft cheeses such as feta, Brie, Camembert, blue-veined cheeses, and Mexican-style cheeses such as “queso blanco fresco.”
  • Refrigerated pâté or meat spreads.
  • Refrigerated smoked seafood unless cooked to steaming hot.  This includes salmon, trout, whitefish, cod, tuna, and mackerel which are most often labeled as “nova-style,” “lox,” “kippered,” “smoked,” or “jerky.”
  • Raw (unpasteurized) milk or foods that contain unpasteurized milk.
Nov 28 2009

Food safety bill deserves support, even from small farmers

Alas, Congress did not pass food safety legislation by Thanksgiving, and I’m getting lots of requests to comment on it.  For example, Johannes G writes: “Marion, I’m usually spot on with you about a lot of things you talk about, but your final comment truly irritates me. We don’t need more regulatory policy, we need a food policy that makes sense.”

Actually, I think we need both.  No question, a better food safety regulatory policy is high on my priority list.  Why?  Because the food industry will never produce safe food voluntarily.  It’s time to give regulation a try, and now is the time.  While the window of opportunity is open, we need to convince Congress to act.

Current legislative proposals

To recap where we are on this: the House passed H.R. 2749, the Food Safety Enhancement Act last July. The Senate is currently considering S. 510, the FDA Food Safety Act.  Some version of these bills seems likely to pass, although it is not at all clear by when.

Although food safety advocates generally agree that we need a single food safety agency that integrates the activities of USDA and FDA, these bills are designed to fix the FDA alone, not the overall food safety system. For a quick take on the provisions of some of the bills under consideration, see the summary chart produced by the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

The bills require science-based (HACCP-type) processes for producing food, starting on the farm. And at long last they authorize the FDA to order recalls or detain foods deemed unsafe. No, the FDA does not already have these basic tools.  It needs them.

One more time on HACCP: It means Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point with Pathogen Reduction.  Translation: identify where in the production process contamination might occur, take steps to prevent contamination from occurring at those points, document that the steps were taken, monitor and inspect periodically to make sure the documentation is accurate, and test to make sure no contamination has occurred.

Without much chance of getting a single food safety agency, fixing the FDA is a good thing to do.  We can hope that once the FDA bill is passed, Congress will work on legislation to reconcile the inconsistencies in FDA’s and USDA’s food safety rules.  But that cannot happen unless the FDA first has the ability to require science-based food production and can authorize recalls and detentions.

The “scale” problem

This brings us to the problem of small farmers, or what regulatory agencies refer to as the “scale” (translation: size) problem. Steve Gilman, the policy coordinator for the Interstate Council of the Northeast Organic Farming Association (NOFA) sent me a copy of a letter to Senators signed by 70 or so members of the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition.

This group is deeply worried about the bill’s “unintended negative impact on family farms, value-added agricultural development, conservation and the environment, organic farming, and emerging local and regional food systems.”

The Coalition wants the Senate to consider, among other things:

  • A two-track regulatory system based on the size, type, and diversity of a farm’s production.
  • Rules based on level of risk (“fresh cut, ready-to-eat packaged fruits and vegetables pose a far greater risk than whole produce”).
  • Exemptions for traceability requirements.
  • Scale-appropriate food safety training as outlined in additional legislation (introduced as S. 2758, The Growing Safe Food Act).

I greatly favor support of small farmers.  But I think all farmers – no exceptions – should be producing safe food. Thinking through a food safety plan is not that hard to do and farmers of any size operations should be carefully designing and diligently following HACCP-type plans appropriate to their specific situations.

Farmers who produce foods unlikely to be cooked before eating — raw vegetables, raw milk, raw oysters, for example – should be testing for contaminants on some kind of regular basis at time intervals that depend on the level of risk.

I think testing is so badly needed that I would add support of testing facilities to the Coalition’s legislative wish list.

The scale issues are important and I hope the Senate will consider them seriously, incorporate them into the final legislation, and look for ways to support the food values outlined by the Coalition.   But the fix-the-FDA legislation should not be held hostage to the scale problem.  The FDA needs better methods for protecting the public from the hazards of industrial production methods.  While making sure the FDA gets food safety authority, we need to work hard to get scale-appropriate rules or enforcement for smaller farmers who want to opt out of industrial food production, grow diverse crops, and produce them sustainably.

Aug 6 2009

The food safety bills in Congress

I don’t track legislation very carefully because bills change so much between the time they are proposed and actually pass.  But I keep getting asked about the bills that seem to have the best chance this year,  H.R. 2749 (which has just been passed by the House) and its equivalent in the Senate, S. 510 (still in the works).  The bills are quite similar.  Both aim to fix the FDA.   Neither aims to fix the system, so forget about combining the food safety functions of USDA and FDA into one agency.  The bills bring the FDA’s rules closer to those of USDA, as they propose science-based food safety standards (much like HACCP) from farm to table.  Best, they give the FDA recall authority as well as a few other goodies.

The bills themselves are miserable to read and it is hard to believe that anyone in government does.  That is why the Congressional Research Service (CRS) does summaries that even legislators can understand.  CRS researchers have now produced blessedly short and hopefully accurate summaries of the House bill as well as the Senate bill.

As my contribution to the cause of clarity, I have done a quick edit of the CRS summaries, with comments in Italics.  The links above are to the original bills so you can plow your way through them to see if this does them justice.   Enjoy!

THE HOUSE BILL, H.R. 2749, requires each food facility to:

(1) Conduct a hazard analysis, (2) Implement preventive controls, and (3) Implement a food safety plan. [This sounds like HACCP, although they aren't calling it that. I vote yes]

Requires FDA to:

(1) Issue science-based performance standards to minimize the hazards from foodborne contaminants [this means HACCP or its equivalent, and about time too],

(2) Establish science-based standards for raw agricultural commodities [this means some version of farm-t0-table HACCP, long awaited],

(3) Inspect facilities at a frequency determined pursuant to a risk-based schedule [this is an admission that the FDA can't handle the work load; it will focus on products most likely to be contaminated]

(4) Establish a food tracing system [this will help identify where foods come from]

(5) Assess fees relating to food facility reinspection and food recall [make companies pay for all this, I hope in a way that avoids conflicts of interest],

(6) Establish a program for accreditation of laboratories that perform analytical testing of food for import or export [can't believe we don't already have this, but that's why we need this legislation].

Authorizes FDA to:

(1) Order an immediate cessation of distribution, or a recall, of food [recall authority at last!]

(2) Establish an importer verification program [accountability for importers, at last!]

(3) Quarantine food in any geographic area within the United States [they can't do this now?].

Defines the term “color additive” to include carbon monoxide that may affect the color of fresh meat, poultry products, or seafood [this will have to meet food additive regulations].

Requires country of origin labeling on food, and annual registration of importers [Yes!].

Provides for unique identifiers for food facilities and food importers [so FDA actually knows who they are].

Deems a food to be adulterated if an inspection is delayed or refused [Yes!].

Requires FDA to establish a corps of inspectors dedicated to inspections of foreign food facilities [Amazing that we don't already have this].

Reorganizes the FDA field laboratories and district offices [Could this possibly be a euphemism for closing some?].

Gives the FDA Commissioner subpoena authority [Yes!].

Establishes whistleblower protections [OK].

THE SENATE BILL, S. 510, is pretty much the same except that it addresses food bioterrorism [fortunately, a rare event so far]. In addition to most of what is in the House bill, it requires HHS and USDA to prepare the National Agriculture and Food Defense Strategy [If this is done right, it ought to promote the safety of domestic foods and imports].

It also requires FDA to:

(1) Identify preventive programs and practices to promote the safety and security of food [worries about food bioterrorism again];

(2) Promulgate regulations on sanitary food transportation practices [good idea];

(3) Develop a policy to manage the risk of food allergy and anaphylaxis in schools and early childhood education programs [I'm not sure how this got in here]

Requires FDA and CDC to enhance foodborne illness surveillance systems [Good idea].

Requires EPA to assist state, local, and tribal governments in preparing for, assessing, decontaminating, and recovering from an agriculture or food emergency [in the military sense of food security].

There is much, much more in these bills.  Bill Marler, who has actually read the bills, has produced his own summary, which includes definitions and more.  If you are wondering what implementation of these bills might cost, the Congressional Budget Office has done an analysis: a mere $2 billion.

It’s hard to know how seriously to take all this until we see what Congress actually does when it gets back to work.  Stay tuned.