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Food Safety Measure Would Give Small Farmers Indigestion

The "Food Safety Modernization Act" would not appreciably improve the safety of the food supply in the U.S., but it would create an army of regulators with TSA-like authority over agriculture.

Patrick Richardson


November 26, 2010 - 12:00 am
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Coburn noted in his address that inspectors do not need the authority to order recalls

Why don’t they need that authority? Because if you have a problem with your product in the food system in this country, you are going to get sued. You are going to get fined if you do not recall that product.

“You’re going to see (inspectors) pull the trigger prematurely,” Hart said, noting bureaucrats tend to be more worried about doing what’s safe in terms of their jobs rather than what’s right.

Coburn is recommending a system in which retailers and producers pay for inspectors who are accredited by the FDA but who work independently of the FDA. They would be trained and spot checked by the FDA.

A larger part of the problem with the current bill is that  it does not address one of the main issues: there are multiple agencies tasked to enforce multiple laws, but they do not necessarily coordinate well with one another.

In the case of the Wright County Egg salmonella outbreak which resulted in the recall of half a billion eggs earlier this year, the USDA was aware of problems such as dirt and mold in the Iowa facility. But the USDA did not notify the FDA, which has overall authority.

Moreover, the regulatory responsibilities often overlap, leaving agencies unsure who is in charge of what. As an example, Coburn pointed to frozen pizza:

Do my colleagues realize right now when we buy a pizza at the grocery store, if you buy a cheese pizza it comes through the FDA, but if you buy a pepperoni pizza, it gets approved by the U.S. Department of Agriculture? How many people in America think that makes sense?

Additionally, the bill as it is currently written includes millions of dollars in funding for projects that have little or nothing to do with food safety, including:

School-based allergy and anaphylaxis management grants. Authorized at $30 million annually, the CBO estimates that this program would cost $107 million over the 2011-2015 period.

Food safety training, education, extension, outreach, and technical assistance grants. Enacting the bill would require the secretary of HHS to enter into cooperative agreements with the secretary of Agriculture to provide grants for food safety training, education, extension, outreach, and technical assistance to owners and operators of farms, small food processors, and small fruit and vegetable merchant wholesalers. Based on spending patterns of similar programs, the CBO estimates that implementing this provision would cost $21 million over the next five years.

Food safety participation grants for states and Indian tribes. S. 510 would authorize the appropriation of $19.5 million for fiscal year 2010 and such sums in subsequent years to award grants to states and Indian tribes to expand participation in food safety efforts. The CBO estimates that implementing this provision would cost $83 million over the 2011-2015 period.

• S. 510 also would require the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to participate in food safety activities and would require the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to enhance its participation in food safety activities. The CBO estimates that the EPA will incur costs of about $2 million annually. The CDC is required to significantly increase its surveillance activities, which the CBO estimates will cost $100 million over 5 years. The CDC is also required to set up “Centers of Excellence” at selected state health departments to prepare for food outbreaks at a cost of $4 million annually.

In the end, this bill would do little but make Congress feel like they’ve done something, cost the taxpayers money, bankrupt smaller producers who simply cannot compete with the megaproducers if they have to meet the same regulations — most of which are not applicable to small producers anyway — and create a legion of TSA-like inspectors running around small farms to ensure compliance.

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Patrick Richardson has been a journalist for almost 15 years and an inveterate geek all his life. He blogs regularly at, which aims to be like another SF magazine, just not so serious.
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