by Marion Nestle
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.

  • There has been a lot of concern on how this bill would affect small farmers (those who generally sell to a small geographic area like a CSA farmer). Particularly the costs.

    Would these changes be across the board? Are there exclusions for the small farmer?

  • gd

    our house rep. in VT, Peter Welch, voted against the bill because it “unfairly subjects Vermont farmers, maple syrup producers and cheese-makers to the same $500 annual registration fee as large, multi-state agri-businesses.”

    Welch was able to reduce the registration fee from $1000 to $500, but he wanted a sliding scale fee based on how large the farm is and how much profit they make. so smaller farms would have to pay say $50/year while someone like ConAgra would pay $1000/year.

    the bill still ended up passing with the flat annual fee of $500 for all farmers. by a vote of 283 to 142.

  • Cathy Richards

    gd — I like your house rep’s thinking.

  • Sophie

    Its my understanding that this excludes pet food manufacturers….so our pets were the canaries in the coal mine in the 2007 pet food recalls, they helped bring huge awareness to the food safety issue especially when baby formula was tainted with the same melamine problem that pet food was…but yet our pets get left out of the food safety bill? Something isnt right here…

  • gd/Heather — I had the same thoughts as you when it came to costs. It definitely sounds appropriate to have sliding scales here. I like Marler’s perspective on the cost issue:

    “…have a sliding scale based upon risk of contamination and size of operation. Frankly, I would require registration of all who produce and sell food, but charge little, if anything, to farms that sell directly to consumers. Raise enough money to actually fund all of this.” <–good idea

    Perhaps the Senate bill approaches the cost question differently?

  • Gail T

    We must be careful with power and that it is prudently focused. The question is will the Food Safety bill hurt farmers who cannot pay the additional tariffs and fees, or hire the staff necessary to wade through bureaucratic paper work. We must first do no harm. If we need to focus on factory farming, the real culprit in unsafe food then I would hope we could write a bill with a more clearly focused objective. It would include a constraint from rotating monolithic agribusiness executives in and out of government agencies, which influence policy at the USDA, such as the current such as the current Food Czar, Michael Taylor.

    It is true that America’s food industry is broken. I am glad, that Senator Durbin is willing to attempt fixing it. If one measures the success of agriculture, however, as agribusiness does, then America is successfully producing large quantities of food. If one measurers agriculture by it’s only realistic measurement, which is the health of the consumer, the land and the culture, then one can say that agribusiness has failed miserably and a return to practicing agriculture in America is imperative. Senate bill 510 does not adequately address the real issues of what is wrong with America’s food production and distribution systems.

    Since World War II, the farming of American lands and husbandry of its beasts has declined. Hijacked by corporations, which have become monolithic idols of financial wealth, the agribusiness model of farming fails to benefit either the land or consumer as it filters great wealth to an elite few. This is true, even in the face of increased production. If you increase the production of something that negatively affects all facets of life, the outcome is easy to predict.

    There are distinguishing differences between agribusinesses and farmers. Agribusinesses manage business tools and chemicals, while farmers husband land and animals. Though chemical and factory farming has increased yield, it has come at great cost.

    Billions of dollars are spent at local, municipal, state and national levels to correct, control and cure problems that agribusiness creates. Soil quality is deteriorating, decreasing the nutritional value of our food. Water systems are contaminated with chemicals, many of which are difficult, if not impossible, to filter out before public consumption. Bountiful as it is, today’s food appears inexpensive. Its high costs, however, are hidden by government subsidies given large agribusinesses, often excluding small farmers. Use of advertising depicting white picket fenced farms fools the public into believing their food comes from traditional farms, with “happy cows,” leaving them anesthetized and complacent.

    Agribusiness is tied to exclusive contracts for genetically altered seeds, herbicides, pesticides, and mammoth sized equipment. Those, whom I call farmers, operate on a scale they can manage with a caring, attentive, intimate liaison with their land, animals and community, which results in nourishment for the consumer, the land and their culture. Thus, the term agriculture.

    Agribusiness moves the prosperity of farming from family farms, which continue to disappear, to corporate farm operations that become too expensive to pass on to following generations. Agribusiness deposits wealth into the profits of a few monolithic corporations while abusing the land, beasts and communities, with little care for the future.

    The real cost of agribusiness, in their chemical and factory farming, is born in the declining health of the American consumer. Saved only by the advances of modern medicine, the public commonly suffers diseases rarely known to their ancestors, such as obesity, heart disease and diabetes. All, diseases directly related to food. Today’s agribusiness has enslaved America to oil, upon which its equipment is dependent. In addition, petrochemicals are used as ingredients in, as well as for the production of, herbicides and pesticides, the foundation of agribusiness.

    Advertising has created a public that believes that cheap fast food is realistic and healthy. Agribusiness has found it profitable to maintain the distance between consumers and their food, and continue to manipulate the public with complete disregard for their health or wellbeing. Agribusiness ignores the time-honored practice of animal husbandry that honors the gift of food from our beasts. Instead, animals give their lives after enduring inhumane and abusive practices all in the name of profits.

    Rather than regulating factory farms, America would be best served slowly diminishing them through heavy taxation to offset the damage they have done to our economy, environment and small farm operators. Then, use a portion of those taxes collected, to subsidize small farm operators who prove that they can farm without harm. Eventually, we will have to pay the price of the folly of factory farming and the greed of the Monsanto’s, Archer Midland Daniel’s, Cargill’s and the like. The longer we wait, the higher the price will be.