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Food Safety Bill to draw strong reactions

4 April 2009 989 views No Comment

Opponents of a federal bill that would require inspections of farms say it would cause hardship and force many small farms out of business.

But others feel the bill is merely an attempt to ramp up the discussion on food safety.

Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) recently introduced HR 875, “The Food Safety Modernization Act of 2009.”

The bill is sweeping in its scope and magnitude.

It would establish a new “food safety administration” within the Department of Health and Human Services that would be run by an administrator of food safety, whose task would be to develop a national food safety program.
The program, according to the bill’s wording, would identify and evaluate potential safety risks from farm to consumer.

It calls for the creation of a national system for registering food establishments and foreign food establishments; a national traceability system that would track food at every stage of production; a foodborne illness surveillance system; and a mandatory food sampling program to track levels of certain contaminants.

All food establishments would be required to label food and food ingredients in order to better identify and track food.

Food production facilities, which are defined as farms, ranches, orchards, vineyards, aquaculture facilities and confined animal feeding operations, would have to meet minimum “science based” requirements for the use of things such as fertilizer, as well as meet minimum requirements for animal encroachment and animal health.

All farms would be subject to random inspections.

The bill states that small farms would be eligible for technical assistance under the terms of the new law, but it doesn’t specify what kind of assistance would be available.

The administrator would also be tasked with creating a list of five of the most significant contaminants in terms of their impact on public health. Samples would be taken from each establishment to make sure they are meeting minimum safety levels for each contaminant. Violations would carry stiff penalties of up to $1 million and even possible jail time.
According to Adriana Surfas, DeLauro’s communications director, the bill is an attempt to fix holes in the nation’s food inspection system in light of the recent salmonella peanut butter outbreak which sickened 691 people and resulted in nine deaths.

As of this week, the bill has garnered 40 co-sponsors and has been referred to the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

Another bill proposed by Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) includes the creation of a 13-member committee to advise the FDA on food safety issues. It also proposes tracking the sale of food and ingredients through an electronic database to establish that it was produced under safe conditions as well as require the names and addresses of each person coming into contact with the food.
The bills have raised the eyebrows of several ag organizations

The National Family Farm Coalition is opposed to the bill, as is the Organic Consumers Association, which recently put out an “action alert” on DeLauro’s bill, stating in an e-mail to Lancaster Farming this week that “we cannot support a ‘food safety’ bill unless it provides protection or exemptions for organic and farm-to-consumer producers and cracks down on the real corporate criminals who are tampering with and polluting our nation’s food supply — such as Monsanto.”
Calls and e-mail requests to Monsanto for a response were not returned prior to press deadlines.

The Organic Consumers Association pointed out, however, that it supported certain aspects of the legislation, including mandatory recalls of tainted food, increased scrutiny of large slaughterhouses and manufacturers and hefty fines against violators.

Lynne Brown, chairwoman of the family and community food systems outreach group at Penn State, said in an e-mail, in essence, that she doesn’t believe that the food safety system is necessarily broken, but short on the resources needed to do a proper job.

“Food safety enforcement is becoming more complicated and it seems that FDA and USDA inspection services are under manned and funded,” Brown wrote. “I’m not sure the food safety system is broken — rather it is not operating efficiently and needs more inputs to take on the ever growing job.”

Brian Snyder, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture (PASA), said the bill is too vague, too broad and too much to enforce and is probably designed to hold a place on the congressional agenda.

“Obviously, when a bill is written this broadly, it could hurt a lot of farmers,” Snyder said, adding that he will represent Pennsylvania farmers on a new “food safety task force” that is being organized by the National Sustainable Ag Coalition.
“Food safety is an important question,” he said. “I don’t think there is any trust left in FDA. They have very little credibility in terms of food.”

Kelli Ludlum, director of congressional relations with American Farm Bureau, said DeLauro has a track record of introducing similar bills to Congress in the past and that it is unlikely that this bill would pass without some serious revisions.

“They just don’t have the resources or time or personnel. They said they want to create a risk-based approach. We can’t inspect everything,” Ludlum said.

“We need to look at where the risks are. Does it make sense for FDA to inspect farms? No. You have to identify where the problems will occur and go from there.”

Ludlum said the USDA should gain more responsibilities through its Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS).

“We believe USDA has a good track record with FSIS, in terms of inspections,” she said. “I think food safety is an important issue. But considering the financial crisis we are in, anything with the economy is priority number one.”

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