Today, the Senate is likely to vote on the Food Safety Modernization Act of 2010 (S510). But the bill is little more than an enormous grant of money and power to the Food and Drug Administration and a lot of reporting burdens imposed on the private sector. Those who favor a smaller, leaner government should oppose it.
Advocates for the bill point out that we need “change” as the food safety system is built mostly on laws passed over seventy years ago. They would like to transform the FDA from what they perceive as a mostly reactive agency – dealing with food safety after outbreaks occur – to a proactive agency that will safeguard the food supply.
However, as we have learned in other contexts, yearning for change begs the question of what change will actually be and what it would actually accomplish. In this case the food supply is so vast and the supply chain so complicated that there is no known or practical way the FDA can be an effective sentinel against all pathogens in the food supply.
First, the food supply in America is quite safe. There is simply no emergency that requires a rush vote in a lame duck session. In fact, the only reason for pushing the bill now is that the new Republicans waiting to be seated in the House probably would not support giving such an enormous blank check in money and authority to the FDA. This alone is enough reason for the Republicans in the senate to refuse to support the bill.
Second, there is little reason to believe the bill will save lives or reduce illness unless you believe that giving the government more power and money will automatically make things safer. If so, the bill is wildly inadequate as, not surprisingly, even with significantly expanded power and resources, the FDA will not be able to inspect even a tiny percentage of the food supply.
Third, the FDA has shown itself to be an agency that slows progress and increases cost in medicine because its officials are always extremely risk-averse – even when the alternative is for patients to die of fatal diseases. This gives us every reason to think that once given more authority, the FDA will use it hastily to order recalls, thus increasing industry costs and causing the price of food to rise. Because deaths from food are so rare – less than 2/1000ths of 1 percent of all the people who eat food in America will die from a foodborne illness in any year, and this includes illnesses from mishandling in the kitchen – these risk-averse measures can’t possibly have much impact on the safety of food. They can, however, bankrupt small businesses and raise prices for consumers.
Fourth, the bill is based on antiquated notions, such as sending an inspector once every five years or three years, depending on the nature of the facility. But there is no evidence these measures do anything at all. It is just an employment act for government jobs. There are no innovative approaches, such as changing the way liability is distributed, nor is there any notion that the government’s constant assertion that the FDA has made sure everything is safe – an impossible notion – actually leads consumers to disregard brand reputation in selecting foods to buy and places to eat.
Fifth, the Congressional Budget Office estimates outlays as a result of the bill at about $1.4 billion between 2011 and 2015. But the costs, as with the health care bill, are deceptive because they are back-loaded. CBO estimates outlays of only $20 million in 2011 but $645 million in 2015. These would likely continue to increase. But even at the $645 million level, we are talking about spending an extra $6.5 billion over ten years.
And for what? The usual crew, such as those at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, is pushing for the bill because its answer to everything is the government should have more power and money. For anyone who hasn’t drunk that Kool-Aid, there is simply no upside here.
Until recently, the bill has been a steamroller with virtually all large food producer and retail associations on board. They were on board not really because the bill will enhance safety but because the associations didn’t want to be seen as opposed to “food safety modernization” and because most large companies already keep all the paperwork and already have many private inspections, so the added burdens are minimal for them.
One group these requirements would be burdensome for is small farmers, which include most organic farmers. This is an important Democratic constituency. As a result, Senator Jon Tester (D–MT) pushed for, and got included, a manager’s amendment that exempts small growers who sell within a certain range of their farm.
This amendment makes the bill a laughing stock from a food safety perspective. There is no evidence that the size of the farm has any impact on the percentage of the farm’s produce that is contaminated with pathogens. In fact, Tester has made clear the amendment is about ideology, not food safety, by saying things such as this: “Small producers are not raising a commodity, but are raising food. Industrial agriculture…takes the people out of the equation."
This is all meaningless. Pathogens are spread by animals, humans, water and air, and are invisible to the naked eye. The “industrial agriculture” he refers to is mostly just larger family farms in places such as California and Florida, rather than smaller family farms in other states, such as Montana.
In any case, Tester’s view is so insulting to the vast majority of U.S. farmers who raise the vast majority of food and the exemptions are so blatantly political that the various produce associations, from the American Mushroom Institute to the Washington State Potato Commission, have reversed their prior support for the bill and are now opposing the bill. This opens a small window to possibly defeat the bill.
Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK), who previously held up the bill because it is not funded, penned an op-ed in USA Today opposing the bill.
It seems likely that the votes are there to pass the bill in the Senate, although several proposed amendments, including one by Senator Coburn to ban earmarks, could rock the apple cart. And the bill has seven Republican cosponsors (Richard Burr, Saxby Chambliss, Michael Enzi, Judd Gregg, Johnny Isakson, Lamar Alexander, and David Vitter).
The House passed a different bill, so things could slip up in conference.
Giving massive new powers to the government, rushing legislation in lame duck sessions, adding to the deficit – there is just no reason for these Republicans to be involved in all that. Obamacare already is set to give the government a stranglehold on our medical system. Do we have to give the government enhanced control over our food as well? Is too little government regulation over the food supply really the banner under which these Republicans wish to march?
Jim Prevor is the founder and editor-in-chief of Produce Business magazine, Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, PerishableNews.com and the New York Produce Show and Conference.