Politics of the Plate: Casting the Food Safety Net too Wide

A bill recently passed by the House could have detrimental effects on small farmers.

With horror stories breaking daily about beef, chicken, leafy greens, peppers, cilantro, or peanut butter being contaminated by potentially fatal bacteria, what was not to like about the Food Safety Enhancement Act of 2009, which was passed by the House of Representatives last week?

Quite a few things, if you’re a small farmer, or if you prefer buying from sustainable, local growers.

The legislation—which among other things gives the FDA the power to force companies to recall tainted products and allows for increased inspections of facilities—was supported enthusiastically by consumer advocacy groups such as the Consumers Union and the Center for Science in the Public Interest. But spokespeople for small and organic growers were far less gung-ho about the bill, opposing key sections of the legislation.

Prior to the bill’s passage, the Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund, based in Falls Church, VA, said that the bill would impose the same “one-size-fits-all regulatory scheme” on small producers and huge industrial agribusiness, even though virtually no major outbreaks of food-borne illness have been attributed to small enterprises. Every facility that holds, processes, or manufactures food would have had to pay the same $500 annual registration fee, whether it was a multi-billion-dollar giant like Kraft Foods or an artisanal cheese maker milking a half-dozen cows.

The legislation also empowers the FDA to set standards determining how crops are grown and requires food growers, manufacturers, and distributors to adopt technology that will track food from field to table—which could prove burdensome for small operations.

Unfortunately, congressional leaders opted to fast-track the new law without allowing sustained debate or the inclusion of amendments that could have addressed these concerns. Perhaps that will occur when the Senate takes up the bill in the fall.

There is no doubt that our food-safety system is broken. But with the vast majority of disease outbreaks coming from industrial-scale operations, legislators should have fixed the problems there instead of targeting small, local businesses that were never part of the problem in the first place.

Being a conscientious farmer is a tough business. Congress just made it tougher.

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