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Senate-passed food safety bill is a step in the right direction, but only that, says U of M expert

On Tuesday the Senate passed, after months of delay, what the New York Times and others are calling a “sweeping overhaul” of the nation’s food safety system.

Remarkably, the legislation, called the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act, received strong bipartisan support, passing on a 73 to 25 vote.  Both of Minnesota’s senators, Sen. Al Franken and Sen. Amy Klobuchar, were co-sponsors of the bill and voted for its passage. 

The intention of the bill is to give the Food and Drug Administration more authority to protect the public from tainted peanut butter, spinach and other foods before they reach the market. Currently, the FDA only has the power to act after an outbreak occurs.

The new bill provides, for example, more inspections of food facilities — and enables the FDA to suspend a facility’s registration if its inspectors uncover a health risk. In addition, the new bill gives the FDA the authority to recall food products it suspects are tainted. Right now, the FDA has to negotiate with food manufacturers to voluntarily remove their products from the market.

President Obama has welcomed the passage of the bill and says he will sign it when it arrives on his desk. But the legislation could still die, depending on what the House of Representatives does. The House passed its own, stronger version of the bill last year; most political watchdogs seem to think, however, that the House will approve the Senate version, perhaps even today.

Time for jubilation?
As the New York Times reported, consumer advocates are “jubilant” over the Senate’s action Tuesday. “Everyone who eats will benefit from this historic legislation,” said Michael F. Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, in a press release. “FDA will have new tools to help ensure that America’s food supply is safer, causing fewer illnesses and deaths.”

Michael Osterholm
cidrap.umn.edu
Michael Osterholm

But Michael T. Osterholm, director of the University of Minnesota’s Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy (CIDRAP), isn’t as enthusiastic about the legislation. Although he sees some food safety improvements in the new bill, he considers them to be only incremental — not the “sweeping overhaul” of the food safety system that others are claiming.

Consumer advocates and others who are euphoric about the new legislation “are suffering from Stockholm syndrome,” he told me in a phone interview early Wednesday. The food safety system has needed help for so long that people are mistaking the bill’s small improvements as huge ones.

“The whole bill can be summed up in the phrase ‘The devil is in the details,’ ” he told me in a phone interview early today.

The new bill calls for FDA inspections only once every three years, “which I would argue is hardly enough,” Osterholm said. Furthermore, the Senate bill doesn’t provide enough funding even for that frequency of inspections.

“You can say you’re going to do all this, but how are you going to do it without the funding?” Osterholm asked. “That’s a major shortcoming.”

Exemptions for small processors and farms
The other major problem Osterholm has with the Senate bill is its exemptions for small food processors and farms, which were successful in persuading the Senate that being included under the legislation would cause many of them to go out of business.

Only 5 percent of foodborne Salmonella isolates come from food produced by the largest companies, he said. “There is a mistaken belief that local and organic is safe,” he added. “I’m not against those products, but people have this misconception that they’re safe.”

Osterholm sees the Senate bill as a step — but only a small step — in the right direction. And he’s not impressed with efforts to make the bill seem more than it is.

“None of us want to rain on the parade,” he said, “but we want to be realistic.”

He’s worried, he added, that this current piece of legislation will fail to protect people as promised from dangerous foodborne illnesses. If it does fail, he said, “it won’t have been a failure in spirit, but in execution.”

Comments (2)

  1. Submitted by Kate Zerwas on 12/01/2010 - 12:39 pm.

    I agree that more needs to be done to protect the food supply. The frequent reports of certain foods sickening hundreds of people all across the country is disturbing, not to mention the possibility that someone could contaminate the food system purposefully to harm U.S. citizens. But, I also happen to support the exemption for small farms. It seems to meet that food-borne illness has become a pandemic largely because food production is concentrated in the hands of fewer and fewer large corporations that produce food products and then ship them nation-wide. Spinach that is grown in California can cause casualties in cities from coast to coast — this is clearly more challenging to handle than an outbreak (like the raw milk incident in MN recently) that is isolated in one community. Moreover, food produced by large corporations are produced in a manner that is inherently less transparent. A community-supported agriculture farm invites its members to come to the farm to see how their food is grown and processed, and often includes the members in the farm work. Consumers who purchase from farmers’ markets can ask their farmers about what measures they take to ensure that food is not contaminated with salmonella or e-coli. I also disagree that food that is certified organic is not safer than food that is not. The organic rules that pertain to the testing of water quality (a major source of bacteria that cause food-borne illness) and regulations limiting the times that manure can be applied to the field are measures that organic farms take to protect their consumers that other farms simply do not take and are not required to take. Exemptions for small producers is necessary to keep them competitive with the big guys, and by supporting small farms we support innovation and community.

  2. Submitted by Hénock Gugsa on 12/01/2010 - 01:27 pm.

    I suppose we have to give thanks for small favors, although they are not really small. Passing a stronger Food Safety Bill in a Congress that is more or less dominated by Republicans is no small feat.

    In other news, however …. 1)Unemployment benefits are expiring this month, and very well may not be renewed…. 2) “It looks as if tax cuts for the rich may stay!”

    And so to put a positive spin to everything …
    We can feel safer about the food we buy off store shelves whether we are employed or unemployed (and broke) or well-off financially and getting more well-off every day.

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