Food: The Senate Passes a Food-Safety Bill, But the Problem Isn’t Going Away

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Food-safety reform advocates won a long-awaited—and rare—victory today in Washington. This morning the Senate passed a sweeping overhaul of the nation’s food-safety system, approving the Food Safety and Modernization Act by an unusually bipartisan vote of 73-25. The bill, which had been languishing in the Senate for more than a year despite support from both sides of the political aisle, will require better record-keeping from food producers, and most importantly, will give the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) the power to recall contaminated food under its own authority, rather than depending on voluntary action by industry. (Yes, the FDA—the agency charged with keep America’s sprawling food system safe—has never had the power to order a recall of contaminated food. I was surprised to learn that too.) The bill came against the backdrop a spate of high-profile and deadly contamination events, including the recall of half a billion eggs this summer that were connected to salmonella outbreaks, and a recall of peanut butter also connected to food poisoning. “It’s really a paradigm shift,” Chris Waldrop, the director of the Food Policy Institute at the Consumer Federation of America, told Andrew Zajac of the Chicago Tribune. “It moves the agency from reacting to outbreaks and recalls to preventing them.”

As those who watched Schoolhouse Rock as kids should know, the bill still has to be voted on by the House to become law. While the House passed its own version of food-safety legislation easily last year, the bills are different, and the lower body will need to reconcile with the Senate version before the end of the brief lame duck session. Given the pile of other priorities that need to be dealt with this month as well, House leaders have said they would be open to simply voting for the Senate version of the bill as is. That, however, could cause some problems. The Senate food-safety bill gives the FDA expanded powers, but with power comes responsibility—and a cost. The legislation is likely to require an extra $1.4 billion of additional spending over the next five years, most of that at the FDA. The Congressional Budget Office has estimated that the increased regulation will cost more than $600 million in 2015, when the law’s requirements really begin to take force. And while the House version would have raised that additional money through registration fees for food producers, those fees were removed from the Senate version. That funding gap in turn has angered deficit hawks like Republican Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, who blocked consideration of the bill earlier this year and who only let it go now in exchange for a vote to ban Congressional earmarks. (That vote failed today.)

The Senate’s food-safety bill had also been criticized for putting onerous obligations on small and organic producers, though Democratic Senator Jon Tester of Montana pushed through an amendment that exempts producers who sell less than $500,000 worth of food a year, and who sell mostly locally. But that shift led the United Fresh Produce Association, a major trade group, to withdraw support for the bill, citing the fact that small producers have been subject to recalls as well as large ones. That argument misses the point, however—it’s the large, concentrated producers who pose a unique threat to food safety. If an organic farmer who sells most of his produce at a local market has a contamination problem, the effect will be mostly limited. But things get out of control at a major producer—like, say, Jack DeCoster, whose Iowa farm recalled nearly 400 million eggs earlier this year because of salmonella—the threat can be cascading and catastrophic for our ever more connected food system. And the problem is severe: food illnesses affect one in four Americans and kill 5,000 people a year, while costing food producers billions in recalls.

But the U.S. may struggle with food safety—and the environmental ills associated with corporate agriculture—as long as farming remains as concentrated as it is now. That’s the message from the NGO Food & Water Watch, which has come out with a new interactive map that shows where major factory farms are concentrated in the U.S. You can find the map here—the information is taken from the Agriculture Department’s farming census, which is done every five years (most recently in 2007). The results are both expected and a little surprising. Major factory farms tend to be concentrated in the Midwest, along with pockets like North Carolina (home to huge hog farms) and the dairy and egg operations in southern California. But the map also shows that there are fairly few areas of the country that are completely free of factory farming—desert states like Arizona and New Mexico are now home to massive dairy operations. “No part of the country is immune from this,” says Patty Lovera, assistant director of Food & Water Watch.

Of course, “factory farm” itself is a politically loaded term. And as the food industry never ceases to point out, concentration can have economic advantages in agriculture just as it might in industry. But there shouldn’t be much doubt that a hyper-concentrated food sector is one that is vulnerable—for contamination, for bio-terrorism, even for plant and animal disease. “If something goes wrong with just one chicken farm, that can cause real problems,” says Lovera. The food safety bill approved in the Senate today won’t fix those problems—but it’s a welcome start.

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