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Fed food safety bills may not guarantee safe peanut butter, opponents say

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 9, 2009 - At the end of his eight-hour days spent maintaining state highways, Jason Kopp of Gerald, Mo. works his second shift: tending to the family farm. Typical of most small farmers, according to Kopp, during growing season he works another 30 to 40 hours a week on top of his day job to cultivate 350 acres of corn and soybeans -- besides raising two children.

Kopp, 33, worries that several bills recently introduced in Washington to regulate food safety at the national, state and local level would make it almost impossible to keep up. Each measure would impose new standards on growers, costing them money, and time lost to record keeping.

In particular, small farmers fear that HR 875's establishment of a "national traceability system" that allows the FDA to "retrieve the history, use, and location of an article of food through all stages of its production" would be a too onerous burden.

"Any regulations that would have to be documented through paperwork would take more time on the part of the producer," Kopp said. "It's one more thing to add to your already busy schedule."

It helps to think of increased responsibilities for farmers like drops of water filling a bucket. According to Garrett Hawkins, the Missouri Farm Bureau's director of national legislative programs, small farmers' buckets are almost overflowing already.

"At what point do some just say, 'Enough is enough,' because it's eating into their bottom line and it's just not worth it anymore?" Hawkins asked.

At the same time, deady food scares, such as the salmonella-contaminated peanuts and E coli-tainted spinach, have raised serious concerns about food safety -- and demands that something be done. On Friday, a new report from the Centers for Disease Control indicated little or no progress on reducing infection rates for five food-borne illnesses, including salmonella.

WHAT'S IN STORE FOR LOCAVORES?

Right now, small farmers are not regulated at all by the federal government. But if the Food and Drug Administration requires them to meet specific standards for planting, growing, storing and transporting, and to keep compliance records, it may create a tremendous burden.

"When we put into effect more bureaucracy and more paperwork, it gets out of hand and becomes very impractical. That kind of solution favors the larger corporate, global systems who have more resources," said Missouri Famers Union President Russ Kremer.

More regulations would not only eat up farmers' time, but also that of small processors and sellers like farmers markets. If local markets can't keep up, and they go out of business, it will create an additional liability for the remaining farmers who will have fewer places to sell their wares, Kremer said.

BILLS KEEP BLOGGERS BUSY

HR 875 is the most controversial of the three bills introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives because it would completely restructure the Food and Drug Administration. Opinions -- mostly oppositional -- are blasting through the blogosphere, labeling HR 875 fascist and Big Brother-ish because of its call for increased scrutiny.

The Internet has also fueled rumors that the bill targets backyard farmers and organic growers -- claims that are untrue, according to the website of Rep. Rosa DeLauro, the bill's sponsor.

According to DeLauro's site, eight consumer and food safety organizations, including the Center for Foodborne Illness Research and Prevention and the Pew Charitable Trusts, support HR 875.

Currently, food safety is the province of about a dozen food-inspection agencies, most of which operate under the FDA, with only meat, poultry and eggs handled by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The proposals, all of which are still in committee, would increase federal involvement in food safety in several ways:

HR 875 Food Safety Modernization Act

  • Divides the FDA into two parts, one focused on drugs and devices, the other on food
  • Mandates and enforces new safety standards for food producers and processors in the U.S. and other countries
  • Creates a system for tracing all foods from the farm to the seller.
  • Beefs up inspections of imported food
  • Recommends funding at the state and local level through government grants.

HR 1332 Safe FEAST Act  and HR 759 the Food and Drug Administration Globalization Act

  • Keep the FDA administrative structure
  • Establish science-based minimum standards for safe food production and handling
  • Call for increased inspection of imports
  • Provide funding from fees to food facilities

Another bill similar to these two, S 510 the  FDA Food Safety Modernization Act of 2009, is in committee in the U.S. Senate.

Several local grocery chains, food safety and farmers' associations were only vaguely aware of the proposals. Both Schnucks and Dierbergs grocery chains declined to discuss the bills, saying they are still looking into the specifics.

HOW MUCH, WHAT KIND OF REFORM?

Some kind of change is needed, agree many food-focused organizations. But few have come out in support of HR 875 and its complete overall of the FDA.

"We strongly oppose the formation of one food safety authority," said Hawkins of the Missouri Farm Bureau. He believes the current system works when properly funded.

The consensus seems to be that the more controversial HR 875 won't pass, but a bill incorporating parts of all three measures will. Hawkins favors a number of reforms -- aspects of which can be found in all three bills -- including more funding for existing agencies, better clarity about which agencies are in charge of what foods and an examination of where the problems lie.

"Let's take a look at where the real risks are and apply the extra resources needed to make sure we're beefing up in that area," Hawkins said. "We want to make sure producers aren't liable for things that happen further down the chain."

Amen, said Kopp, a Missouri farmer who advocates more scrutiny of processing facilities. He points out that the U.S. government is conducting a criminal investigation of a Georgia peanut processing plant implicated in a salmonella outbreak.

"Things of that nature are not coming off the farm; they're coming from inside these processing plants," Kopp said. "So to regulate the farmer directly wouldn't have any advantage to anyone."

The Missouri Restaurant Association is taking its cue from the national organization, which supports a revision of food safety oversight, but is still studying the merits of each bill.

That stance is mirrored by U.S. Rep. Russ Carnahan, D-St. Louis. His office says Carnahan's not convinced splitting the FDA in two is necessary, but he supports reorganizing existing agencies and increasing funding of existing programs.

"The system in which food is inspected needs to change -- it's just a matter of when and how," he said in a statement.

Underfunding is one of the biggest problems facing food safety administration, concurred Ernie McCullough, a vice president with St. Louis-based ASI Food Safety Consultants.

Declaring that food safety is a bipartisan concern, McCullough said Democratic and Republican lawmakers, growers, ranchers, processors, retailers and wholesalers must realize the urgency of the issue: "We're all going to have to buy into this or I think we're in for some major food safety problems down the road."

Nancy Larson is a freelance writer in St. Louis. 

Nancy is a veteran journalist whose career spans television, radio, print and online media. Her passions include the arts and social justice, and she particularly delights in the stories of people living and working in that intersection.

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