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Food Safety Measure Would Give Small Farmers Indigestion

As millions across the country prepared for their annual Thanksgiving feast, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nevada) was busy taking shots at Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Oklahoma) over food safety, claiming in a letter from a Reid spokesman that Coburn, a physician who has delivered more than 4,000 babies, doesn’t care if children get sick.

Coburn is offering amendments to, and opposing the current form of, Senate Bill 510, the so-called “Food Safety Modernization Act.”

According to Coburn’s camp, this bill, which could come to a vote as early as next week and which is being heavily pushed by Reid and the lame-duck congress, would do nothing to alleviate the few problems there are with food safety in the United States. The U.S. has less than 34 cases of food-borne illness per 100,000 people, and the bill would simply add burdensome regulations and give federal bureaucrats TSA-like authority to do whatever they felt was necessary to “secure the food chain” with little recourse for consumers or producers.

Coburn says the legislation would merely add hundreds of pages of new regulations and more than a billion dollars in spending without doing anything to improve what is already the safest food supply in the world.

In the letter, Reid spokesman Jim Manley said:

In Senator Coburn’s world, children who get sick and even die from eating unsafe food are less important than petty political posturing — and instead of standing up for these kids, Senate Republicans have rewarded Senator Coburn by electing him part of their leadership.

Coburn communications director John Hart said the accusations were ridiculous.

“I think it’s hard to argue that someone who’s been a practicing physician doesn’t take children’s health seriously,” Hart said. “It’s disappointing that some in Congress don’t want to debate substantive legislation and have to resort to personal attacks.”

Indeed, according to the Centers for Disease Control, no more than three-thousandths of one percent of food-borne illnesses are fatal in the United States.

In an address to the Senate on the amendments he is offering to the bill, Coburn noted the safety of the food supply in the U.S. as well:

We could spend $100 billion additionally every year and not make food absolutely safe. There are diminishing returns to the dollars we spend. But if you look at what the case is: In 1996, for every 100,000 people in this country, we had 51.2 cases of food-borne illness — the best in the world, by far. Nobody comes close to us in terms of the safety of our food . But, in 2009, we only had 34.8 cases — three times better than anybody else in the world. So the question has to be asked: Why are we doing this now when, in fact, we are on a trendline to markedly decrease it? The second question that should be asked is: No matter how much money we spend, is there a diminishing return?

Indeed, the legislation as currently extant would force small farmers who sell more than $500,000 worth of produce a year to meet the same regulations as larger factory farms. This category would, for instance, include Amish cooperatives which mostly sell at farmers’ markets and to restaurants.

According to Hart, the proposed legislation would cost $1.4 billion, a number backed up by the CBO.

Most worrisome is the fact the bill as it currently is written would give the FDA the authority to require mandatory recalls of tainted food.

At first blush this seems reasonable, but the current system of voluntary recalls already resulted in a $100 million loss to tomato growers in the U.S. when a salmonella outbreak caused the FDA to recommend a recall. It turned out the problem was not tomatoes but jalapeno peppers, but by the time the real culprit was discovered the damage was already done.

Hart points out that bureaucrats with the power to order recalls would be very likely to jump the gun and order a huge recall before all the facts are in. Worse, it would precipitate a fight between the industry and regulators, who currently have a fairly good working relationship.

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.