Food Safety?

Chris Blanchard has authored an interesting editorial in the latest issue of Growing For Market regarding the Food Safety Modernization Act. I’ve blogged about my objections to the Act several times.  In his editorial Mr. Blanchard goes beyond merely objecting to provisions of the Act which threaten the viability of small farms, and challenges the underlying rationale for it, arguing that it’s more about “food safety theater” than food safety, and that it’s about “maintaining the perception of food safety for the large corporations and trial lawyers.”  Here’s a bit of his editorial:

We already have safe food. Even the large, centralized mega-farms and distribution centers in the desert west produce safe food. In 2006, over 50 billion servings of fresh-cut salad greens and spinach were sold in this country – but an E. coli 0157:H7 outbreak that fall killed five people, and spinach sales still haven’t recovered to a pre-2006 level.

Even at that, the Food Safety Modernization Act is not about keeping people safe. If it were, it would regulate all fruits and vegetables, instead of just “covered produce” – those items likely to be consumed raw. If I’m the rare weirdo who eats my beets raw and I die from salmonella poisoning, I’m just as dead as I would be if I got it from salad mix.

And if it were really about food safety, instead of food safety theatre, it wouldn’t exempt anyone: Small farms aren’t necessarily safer than big farms, they are just more likely to fly under the radar of epidemiological methods. Instead, the FSMA is about maintaining the perception of food safety for the large corporations and the trial lawyers.

The people who die in food safety outbreaks are not, by and large, young and healthy. In the 2011 Cantaloupe- Listeria outbreak, the median age of those who died was 81 years. It was the same in the 2006 spinach outbreak. This is the same as the average age of California residents who died from influenza and pneumonia between 2000 and 2007. We don’t have a fresh produce food safety crisis in this country, any more than we have an influenza and pneumonia crisis.

While I’m glad that our farm is exempt (for now at least), the question of why farms whose customers are nearby are allowed to farm in ways that would be deemed “unsafe” by farms whose customers are more distant, seems legitimate and puzzling.  But as I’ve mentioned before, the FDA estimates that the cost of complying with the Act will be over $4,600 for “very small farms,” enough to render many of them nonviable.

The editorial mentions another provision of the Act that will adversely affect us, and to which I hadn’t previously paid any attention.

The moment you handle another farm’s produce, you fall under the much more stringent Preventive Controls Rule. So, if you trim the outer leaves from a head of lettuce from another farm on your farm – or even cool a head of lettuce for another farm, or put a head of somebody else’s lettuce in your CSA box – you are engaged in “processing” and thus subject to a whole different level of regulation.

We don’t use or handle produce from other farms, but one of our best customers is another farm in our community.  That farm often buys produce from us to use in their CSA shares or to sell at their farmer’s market.  Under this law, they probably won’t be able to continue legally doing so.

Mr. Blanchard’s conclusion:  “We’re looking at unfettered enforcement of vague regulations based on outdated science to make it look like we are making our food safe.”

I’m sure that many of the folks who have been involved in getting this Act passed and implemented are well-intentioned.  But as is often the case, the unintended consequences of a government fix may end up being worse than the problem they were trying to solve.  And in this case maybe there was never a problem to begin with.


11 comments on “Food Safety?

  1. Jeff says:

    Would you hire someone who was not well-intentioned? It’s not the “unintended consequences of a government fix” that we should concern ourselves with. It’s who has bought the coercive power of government to further their own ends that we need to concern ourselves with. Capitalists, contrary to what the free-marketers and their mouthpieces say, despise competition and will do anything to suppress it.


    • Bill says:

      In this case it seems to me that consumer advocates and public safety watchdog organizations pushed for the legislation. It creates an additional regulatory burden on the food industry, but one it can reasonably handle. There is potential however that it will have a very negative effect on small farms, without making much of difference to food safety.


      • Jeff says:

        Names? Which “consumer advocates” and “public safety watchdog organizations” pushed for this legislation? Give me the names and I’ll do some research and get back to you.


      • Bill says:

        All of them. Seriously, I doubt you can find many (if any) who didn’t support it. Here’s a NYT op-ed written by Michael Pollan and Eric Schlosser:

        Of course being well-intentioned is not enough to make a bad law good.


      • Jeff says:

        From an article in The Christian Science Monitor, from November 23, 2010:

        “Supporters include General Mills, Kraft Foods, Monsanto, and the National Association of Manufacturers. Opponents include the American Grassfed Association, Family Farm Defenders, and the Small Farms Conservancy. The Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture, which represents smaller farmers, has backed the bill.

        Eric Schlosser, author of Fast Food Nation, and Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, support the law in its current form. ‘SB 510 is the most important food safety legislation in a generation,’ they wrote recently. ‘The Tester Amendment will make it even more effective, strengthening food safety rules while protecting small farmers and producers. We both think this is the right thing to do.'”

        If General Mills, Kraft Foods, Monsanto, and the NAM were for it, then I would have been against it. On the face of it, with those actors involved, if “consumer advocates and public safety watchdog organizations pushed for the legislation”, then they were co-opted actors. Capital is very, very good at co-opting its opponents. I haven’t read it yet, but I think Sheldon Wolin, in his book Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism, might have something to say about just how “consumer advocates” and “public safety watchdog organizations” get co-opted by capital. Just because they are Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) doesn’t mean they don’t toe the government line. You might browse The Wrong Kind of Green blog for a very different look at the whole subject of NGOs.

        What is the solution to this mess? I think the Catholic social justice idea of subsidiarity should be looked at.


      • Bill says:

        Thanks. I’ve been well aware of the lobbying associated with this bill and, as I said, I’ve been opposed to it all along (here’s a post I put up about it in July, 2009, a year before it passed: I’ve interacted with enough supporters of the bill (with whom I disagreed) to know that many of them were genuinely motivated by a desire to make food safer and by their belief that a new law was the best way to do that. I argued then that the industry would find a way to minimally comply (at minimal expense to them) and those of us in alternative ag would be worse off because of it. I still think that will be the likely consequence of all this.


  2. shoreacres says:

    Food safety? Give me a break. If there was a concern for food safety, this wouldn’t be happening.

    It’s just another power grab. Whether it’s the USDA or the Senate yesterday or the EPA declaring seasonally-running streams navigable waters, these people are out of control. I’m growing just a touch weary of hearing excuses about “unintended consequences” when it appears that the consequences were intended from the beginning.


    • Bill says:

      I’m sure there are folks with bad intentions who were involved in the process. But I’ve followed this from the beginning and I know that the push for this legislation originally came from consumer-advocacy groups and it was supported and promoted by some prominent supporters of sustainable agriculture. I’ve opposed it from the beginning, but this was not a brainchild of industrial ag. Some of the advocates of this probably read this blog. I don’t doubt their motives or good intentions.

      When a tragedy makes the news, 9 times of out 10 the government will try to design a fix to prevent it happening again. And 9 times of out 10 that’s because the people are demanding that they “do something.” People have died from eating contaminated food. So it was politically impossible for the government not to “do something” (even though that’s often exactly what they should do).

      I’ve also read some things written by folks involved in promoting this bill. I don’t think they set out to render small farms nonviable (in fact I think they’ve tried to avoid that), even if that ends up being a consequence of this.

      I’m pretty sure this started out being about food safety and has turned into being about creating an appearance of addressing food safety. That is often the case with government interventions, imho.


      • shoreacres says:

        I did paint with too broad a brush. I’ll acknowledge that. But I came to your blog from an hour and a half of listening to people express frustration, puzzlement, anger and bitterness over attempts to enforce even more regulations – and I was listening to the early morning hunting and fishing show!

        Sometimes it seems as though there’s no place left where the bureaucracy isn’t intent on regulating what doesn’t need to be regulated. Even where regulation may be needed, refusing input from people who have real life experience of (farming, fishing, manufacturing, mining, parenting, educating, etc. ad nauseum) is frustrating beyond belief.

        I’ll see if I can’t purchase a pound of objectivity at the market today. 😉


  3. Bob Braxton says:

    theater? all is theater. All the world’s a stage.


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