by Marion Nestle
Nov 19 2010

Senate stalls action on S. 510

The Senate debated S. 510, the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act, yesterday.  I was not able to watch the debate  and was disappointed to find not one word about it in today’s New York Times. I guess it doesn’t count as news when Senators stall legislation that would give the FDA the authority it needs to ensure safe food.

Fortunately, Helena Bottemiller of FoodSafetyNews is on the job. She reports:

  • The Senate is unlikely to do anything with the bill until after Thanksgiving recess, November 29th at the earliest.
  • Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) is trying to block the bill by forcing a vote on an amendment to ban all earmark spending through 2013.
  • Although the bill ostensibly has wide bipartisan support in the Senate and the House, big agricultural groups are unhappy about the recent Tester amendment mandating exemptions for small farms. Twenty produce groups signed a letter to Senate leadership arguing against the exemptions.
  • The Senate may resume debate on the bill today.
  • All bets are off on what will happen next.

The House passed its version of the bill in July 2009.  The increasingly dysfunctional Senate has been sitting on it ever since.

Why?  The reason seems ludicrous but it’s what everyone is telling me: the Republicans do not want the Democratic administration to get credit for passing the food safety bill.

Senators: Grow up!  Lives are at stake here.

Citizens: Act up!  Tell your senators to get this bill passed.

Today’s additions: Here’s Bill Marler’s update on the competing amendments.  Apparently Coburn thinks we don’t need a food safety bill because Marler’s lawsuits will keep industry in linePhil Brasher explains all the steps that will need to be taken for this bill to get passed by the Senate and become law.

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  • Please provide evidence that Republicans are stalling to stop Democrats from getting credit. The arguments I have heard against the bill are as follows:
    – places unnecessary regulatory burdens on smaller farms and local home gardens
    – bill was lobbied and supported by major food corporations trying to protect themselves by previous point
    – places every food growing facility under jurisdiction of federal government
    – could outlaw saving your own seeds or growing your own food without proper regulation (i.e. like Michelle Obama’s own garden)

    The last one sounds kinda far-fetched to me but I haven’t found confirmation either way and I haven’t had time to look at the actual bill yet. But it’s not just knee-jerk anti-government conservatives against this bill. There’s a pretty big uprising from the natural/organic/local food community that’s tired of corporations like Monsanto crowding them out with its GM stuff and is really ticked off that they’re using this bill to further protect themselves and enhance their reach.

    Just stuff I’ve heard… feel free to contradict with better facts…

  • Subvert

    All this talk about politics, like the Democraps these days are any different than Refublicans… They are all on the same team, the Washington Home Team! I hear the team is owned and operated by a few wealthy power wielders, that do it solely for the fun factor and love of the cutthroat sport. The tryouts are tough, but if you know the right person, have enough money, and do the right favors once you’re in, you just might make it to the big league!

  • See

    “None of the supporters of S 510 will acknowledge the corrupt nature of the Food and Drug Administration. Monsanto executives now work at the FDA or on President’s Obama’s Food Safety Task Force.

    What legislators continue to ignore from the public is that we do not support giving federal agencies even more power — especially over something as inherently private as food choices.

    None of the legislators will discuss the FDA raids on natural food operations which sickened no one, while it allowed Wright County Egg to sicken people for decades before finally taking action.”

    And also

    “FDA has more than adequate powers under existing law to ensure food safety and effectively deal with foodborne illness outbreaks. FDA has power to inspect, power to detain product and can readily obtain court orders to seize adulterated or misbranded food products or enjoin them from being sold. The problem isn’t that FDA needs more power; it’s that FDA does not effectively use the power it currently has…

    S.510 will provide a competitive advantage to industrial food producers–the sector of the food system causing most of the food safety problems; the bill will impose burdensome regulations on many small businesses, a number of whom won’t have the economies of scale to comply with S.510’s requirements.

    5. S.510 does nothing to address many significant food safety problems in this country, such as those resulting from confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs), genetically modified organisms (GMOs), and various contaminants (e.g., BPA, pesticides, herbicides, etc.).”

  • Virginia Southern

    well done by the FDA, is a department that does a good job, just done a ban there will note that these painkillers can cause anomalies and is more correct, we hope this will also do so with other painkillers such as Vicodin, hydrocodone, norco, which are opioid narcotics but are of great help for the sick, some people are using it inappropriately, and even can buy online without a prescription and this sale should not be allowed.


  • Marion, I am totally gobsmacked that you support this bill. The government should not be controlling the food we eat. The food industry is no better than the medical industry, their only interests are in making money and the government is under both their thumbs. People need to educate themselves that said food is causing heart disease, cancer, obesity and countless other “diseases” and symptoms. When we wake up and realize that so called “safe food” is nothing more than empty calories, free of any nutrients, and full of chemicals, we’ll need choices and if the government is controlling the system there will be no choices.

  • Michael Bulger

    The “freedom website” from which you get your news on S.510 is full of outrageous claims regarding the effects of the bill. It neither puts all food under government control nor would it crush small farms.

    In reality it is set to regulate the few hundred thousand food processing facilities that stand in between the millions of farms and the general public.

    It will give the FDA the much needed power to order recalls from these processors, who now can (and have) refused to remove contaminated products from the market. It will also require FDA to do more frequent inspections of large, high-risk facilities with poor compliance histories, such as Wright County Eggs.

  • They say the bill does things, you say it doesn’t… I’m just looking for specifics to tell me either way.

    You say it’s for regulating facilities standing between farms and the public, but I’ve read other things that say the bill defines farms AS food facilities.

    Special breaks for big guys with more rules for little guys? Forgive me if I’m inherently distrustful of large bills that give more power to potentially corrupt government organizations that may be in bed with the very corporations they’re supposedly protecting us from…

  • Michael Bulger
  • Jerianne Heimendinger

    Wow, Marion, I would love to hear from you about why you support this bill. I cannot see S 510 bill as anything but the wrong solution to the wrong problem.

  • Thanks… Will use that as a reference. It allays some fears and I’m hoping it’s all true. Because there’s also claims that “food production facility” is defined as “any farm, ranch, orchard, vineyard, aquaculture facility, or confined animal feeding operation.” From what I can tell that line of text may actually be in the house bill, not this one. But if the Senate bill doesn’t define the term and they’re going to have to reconcile them anyway… I’m still uneasy.

    What about this claim from another post on that “foodfreedom” site?

    “The FDA isn’t so high-bar setting when it comes to other things like melamine in baby formula. Though it has proven to sicken and kill infants, initially the FDA just denied the melamine was in all the corporate baby formula but when people found evidence that it was, the FDA then quickly supplied a “food safety” standard that defined whatever level of melamine that was in the formula as fine.

    This game playing about “food safety” standards – one to eliminate farmers by setting the bar so high no one can climb, and one to protect industry by setting the bar so low nothing need be done – is nothing new but now it is being suddenly extended to seeds. And it comes with penalties that make bankrupting farmers in an instant, very easy.”

  • Marion

    @Jerianne: great to hear from you. I want a single food safety agency that requires producers of all foods to do so safely and regulates production of all foods from farm-to-table. This requires (1) fix the FDA, (2) fix the USDA so the rules match, and (3) fix the system. It would be nice if we could go right to step #3 but that’s not how politics works these days. I’ve been writing about these issues for a long time (see Safe Food: The Politics of Food Safety, as well as my many blog posts on food safety). Hope things are good with you!

  • Michael Bulger

    @Polar Ice Cap:

    Here is the FDA’s “fact sheet” regarding what defines a facility that is supposed to have already registered:

    You’ll notice private residences (even if you grow or make food) are exempt. Farms devoted to growing or raising crops and/or animals are also exempt. Roadside stands are also exempt.

    The Senate will be voting after Thanksgiving on a compromise version of the bill that exempts people who sell to CSAs and/or farmers markets. This version would also clear smaller businesses from having to comply with some of the sections people have been worried about, if they do most of their business within a 275 mile radius.

    We’ll see what happens.

    As far as your concerns about melamine in baby formula, I haven’t done any research as to the situation. I don’t know about the minimum level, but I certainly don’t think babies should be exposed to dangerous substances. I would sincerely hope and posit that the FDA is genuinely concerned with the health of babies. Anything less would be criminal.

  • Cathy Richards

    @Polar Ice Cap and Michael Bulgar
    Re: Melamine in formula. There was a standard previously for how much melamine could be in modified milk proteins and similar protein bases etc. The standard was set assuming that these protein base additives would play a significant role in our daily intake — it would be just an ingredient in just one or two or three things we consume, so the total melamine we consume should have been within “safe” limits.

    I’m not sure what changed at the production/regulatory end, but suddenly infant formula started being a potential source of melamine, and of course infants that are not breastfed have formula as their sole food source, at a time when their liver and kidney functions are still immature (these organs help our body deal with toxins etc). No problems were noticed until some unscrupulous people in China started illegally adding excess melamine to protein bases to save money falsify their lab tests for protein “quality”. Babies died. Three of the executives were executed for this. And regulatory bodies throughout the globe (not just the US) had to lower the levels of melamine allowed in infant formula specifically in order to be able to test and recall any affected products.

    The fact that a regulatory agency “allows” a certain amount of melamine or any other ingredient does not mean they are allowing us to be poisoned. Instead they are allowing for incidental unintentional environmental cross-contaminations at a level that should not cause harm.

    Yes, it sounds scary and irresponsible, but it isn’t. Although sometimes these “allowed” levels are not as low as they could be (eg. arsenic, lead) it’s often because getting levels any lower would be prohibitively expensive. With melamine it is not expensive to prevent contamination, so the melamine level for infant formula is a very tough and safe standard.

  • Cathy Richards

    Whoops. Meant “would NOT play a significant role”….

  • Anthro

    When is congress going to discipline itself enough to prohibit tacking on totally unrelated bits to otherwise decent legislation?


    To those who say they don’t want the government in their food “choices”, I say, “for heaven’s sake–wake up!” One of the main responsibilities of government is to protect its citizens. Melamine is a good example of what unscrupulous people will do when their companies are not regulated and their products are not tested. The problem with the egg producers recently in the news was that there wasn’t ENOUGH government interference in their nefarious activities!
    Marion, thank you for your unwavering support for this bill and for your firm stance on public health. I still can’t figure out if the Tester Amendment is a good or bad thing. I don’t want to burden small producers with unnecessary regulation or paperwork, but you are right to point out that EVERYONE needs to produce safe food. Michael Pollan supports the amendment, though, so I’m leaning toward calling my Senators on behalf of it.

  • Michael Bulger continues to cite a document entitled, “S. 510 – FDA Food Safety Modernization Act Small Farm and Small Business Guide,” as if it were THE authority on what S 510’s impact will be on small farms and business.

    Nothing could be further from the truth.

    He fails to disclose that this document appeared anonymously on Capitol Hill simultaneously with the release of the Bill Managers’ Amendment on 8-12-10 which is no longer being considered so even it were ever accurate, and it wasn’t, it no longer is.

    More importantly, no one has ever publicly taken credit for its publication. It is generally believed to be the work of the staff of the Bill Managers’ Committee—far from a disinterested third party.

    Finally, and most importantly, its claims were debunked shortly after its release by Farm and Ranch Freedom Alliance (FARFA) and other groups in the local food movement.

    But does that stop apologists for S 510, like Bulger, from citing it or even telling the whole story? No.

  • Michael Bulger

    It states:
    1. “No change in agency for regulated foods.” True.
    2. “No change in definition of facility.” True, up until the Tester amendment is attached at which point businesses selling to CSAs and farmers markets are exempt.
    3. “Flexibility for small businesses.” True.
    4. “Scale appropriate produce standards.” True.
    5. “Increased training opportunities.” True.
    6. “Risk-based traceability.” True.
    7. “Regulatory flexibility for Organic foods.” True.
    8. “Protections for farmers markets, cottage industries, and direct farm-to-market sales.” True.

    Small businesses are exempted under the Tester amendment, which will be voted on as part of the bill. It matters not that this is a summary of the old Manager’s amendment. It is still factual and a useful tool for explaining where “food freedom blog” gets things wrong.

    It could have been written by anyone and it still would be accurate based on S.510. Still, the staff of the Committee steering the bill certainly would be authoritative as towards Congressional intent.