Stop the Hysteria! A Closer Look at HR 875



For the past few weeks the internet has been abuzz with conversations about HR 875, aka the “Food Safety Modernization Act of 2009.” [PDF] This Congressional bill is primarily aimed at creating a new Food Safety Agency and improving our food safety systems, but has been blasted by many food and farm-loving activists who warn that it is the spawn of Monsanto and it will make organic farming and backyard gardening illegal. Scary stuff – but is it true?

When I first started reading about HR 875 it quickly became clear that something was missing from all the criticisms: endorsement from a reputable environmental or food organization. Call me naïve, but I tend to look to well-established, science-based institutions to help me decide which issues I should get on board with (and determine which issues aren’t really issues at all). Given this tendency to side with environmental leaders, I’ve decided that H.R. 875 isn’t worth losing sleep over or even signing a petition for (although I think I may have actually signed something before really looking into the bill – oops). There are more constructive things we food activists could be doing with our time than fighting against this relatively benign – and probably even beneficial – bill.

The main qualms that bloggers and email forwarders have had with H.R. 875 are two: 1) the bill was introduced by a Congresswoman whose husband has consulted for Monsanto in the past; 2) the bill –if passed – will require every “food production facility” to comply with tougher food safety regulations, which could be expensive and challenging for smaller operations and maybe even result in a ban on organic farming and prohibit backyard gardeners from growing food for their personal consumption. Allow me to take a second to review these assumptions, see what basis they have, and quickly review the bill so that we’re all clear on what it actually says.

Rosa DeLauro is a Democratic Representative from Connecticut who drafted H.R. 875 in her capacity as a ranking member of the House Appropriations Agriculture Subcommittee, where she has been promoting food safety and working to reform the FDA since 2005. Apart from her food and farm work, DeLauro has also written and pushed through legislation promoting equal pay for women (namely the Paycheck Fairness Act), and she has also worked on initiatives to reduce class sizes in public schools and lower the cost of child care for families. Overall, she’s a pretty progressive lady, and she is rated by GovTrack.org as a “far-left Democrat.”

DeLauro’s husband, Stan Greenberg, is a Political Strategist and CEO at Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research, a consulting firm that has provided services for Monsanto, Coca-Cola and General Motors, not to mention NRDC, The International Red Cross and NPR. Critics of H.R. 875 have put a lot of emphasis on the Monsanto connection, claiming that the bill will help companies like Monsanto to enforce seed patents and require farmers to use more chemical fertilizers and pesticides. If you look at the language in the actual bill you’ll see that the document makes no mention of seeds at all, discusses pesticides only in reference to testing food for pesticide residue, and calls to establish minimum standards for fertilizer use (not to be confused with minimum quantities of fertilizer use).

The bill does include required food safety registration and new safety regulations for food producers, which includes “any farm, ranch, orchard, vineyard, aquaculture facility, or confined animal-feeding operation.” Farms are defined by the federal government as operations selling at least $1,000 worth of food per year, and the word “garden” doesn’t ever come up in the bill, so the fears about H.R. 875 banning backyard veggie gardens is utterly unfounded. The term “organic” is not used at any point in the document, but the bill does call for the provision of technical assistant and time extensions to make it easier for small operations to get registered (which is free, by the way), and comply with the new safety requirements.

If this bill becomes law, the federal government will establish a Food Safety Administration separate from the drugs program at the FDA – something that food and public health groups have been demanding ever since it became clear that the FDA isn’t capable of juggling the dual tasks of approving new drugs and keeping tainted food out of grocery stores. According to the language of H.R. 875, the Food Safety Administration would not only monitor food producers and set up more thorough safety standards for food production and distribution, but it would have the authority to order recalls when tainted products enter the food supply, and to punish producers who violate food safety regulations. This is a huge improvement over our current system, under which the FDA and USDA are both incapable of ordering recalls – as things stand now, it’s up to the food companies themselves to decide whether or not a recall is necessary.

One group that supports H.R. 875 is Food & Water Watch, a great organization that has been promoting small, sustainable farms, food safety and public health on Capitol Hill since it spun off from Public Citizen in 2005. They offer a nice overview of the bill on their website, which is helpful if you want to know exactly what the bill will and will not do (without having to read the entire 117 page PDF document). The webpage assures us that H.R. 875 represents a well-intentioned attempt to improve our rickety food safety system, but notes that the bill is less likely to make it through Congress than H.R. 759, the “Food and Drug Administration Globalization Act,” which Food & Water Watch says “contains several provisions that could cause problems for small farms and food processors.” Seems like we’ve all been forwarding the wrong email.

As someone who cares deeply about our food system, I find it encouraging that so many people are taking action and getting involved in campaigns that keep tabs on what’s happening in Washington. We all have a role to play on Capitol Hill, and it’s crucial that Americans question our leaders and participate in the political process. That being said, it’s also important that we educate ourselves and make opinions and decisions based on fact rather than dubious email forwards and the words of fear-mongering bloggers.

There are plenty of important causes at the local, state and federal levels that we can get involved with, and lucky for us most environmental and food organizations offer action alerts, volunteer opportunities and events for us to participate in – if you’re looking for stuff like this you can start by clicking around on Civil Eats’ “We Support” list on the right of this page. If you want to learn more about H.R. 875 or any bill that’s being kicked about online, poke around and see what different sources are saying about it, and consider giving more weight to the opinions of experts at trusted organizations like Sierra Club, Slow Food, Food & Water Watch and NRDC – these guys are on our side, and they really know what they’re talking about.

I’m no expert, so whatever you do, don’t take my word for it.

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  1. Andrew
    Tuesday, March 24th, 2009
    I urge you to consult any actual farmer on these issues, since only farmers know first-hand what it's like to deal with regulations like the ones proposed in these bills. No, they won't ban organics, but they could (unintentionally) drive many small, sustainable producers out of business. That's why they scare me, and that's why they should scare you too.
  2. Alan
    Tuesday, March 24th, 2009
    Gwen,

    Thanks for the level headed analysis. I find it notable that Food and Water Watch is a backer of HR 875. That's a very different take than the idea that Monsanto wrote it so the company could implant backyard farmers with rfid tags, use government regulators to fine small organic producers $500,000 a day if they don't make mandatory applications of toxic chemicals to their crops, and force them to buy genetically modified seed.

    Such crazy claims discredit the bloggers, such as Linn Cohen Cole at OpEdNews, who helped drive some of these rumors. They certainly put their credibility at risk with DeLauro, her co-sponsors ad the people at Food and Water Watch who know better. Likewise, all the small farmers who called or wrote DeLauro or other members of Congress to opposed such fabled content of this bill all look like a bunch of kooks. Maybe next time they will take a little time to look into it like you did.

    It is really unfortunate to see so many well-intentioned people duped into making fools of themselved in front of progressive policymakers.

    Thanks for pulling us all back from the ledge on this one.

    Alan
  3. Wednesday, March 25th, 2009
    Thanks for this level-headed analysis. I was surprised by the hysterical tweets/emails on this when I had first learned about the bill from Food and Water Watch, and thought it sounded like a good idea on first glance -- if perhaps a little heavy-handed. At the same time, we've seen with the CPSIA what happens when those with good intentions help push through a bill without considering the full ramifications, so I understand the reaction to urge caution. Unfortunately the Administration seems set on maintaining the status quo at the FDA anyway.
  4. Wednesday, March 25th, 2009
    I'm still sifting through all the info on this bill but i tend to agree with Gwen's angle. I am a small (6 acres in production) organic farm and I feel that sterility is not an answer to our food safety concerns, however I think there are many of us small farmers that probably have questionable packing & washing facilities. I don't think that it's unfeasible to fit some upgrades into our budgets these days. Not saying that the regulators couldn't make extreme requests. (Look at some of the requirements of GAP certification) If you have a solid business model I feel something like this should be tangible. If not you should look at your business model. It just takes creativity to find a solution.
  5. Andrew
    Wednesday, March 25th, 2009
    federal regulators require that "slaughterhouses," even those that process only a few cows per year, have a bathroom and an office for the inspector. the open-ended language of H.R.s 875/759 leaves it distinctly possible that federal regulators would require the same of vegetable washing and packing facilities. and don't think for a second that the bathroom in your house will count.

    not everything in the bill is bad, and the hysteria certainly is not justified. but i'm telling my representatives in congress that i oppose the bills as they are written, because they will apply regulations designed for massive industrial factories to small farms.
  6. Wednesday, March 25th, 2009
    I've been looking at this bill from the perspective of a small farmer who also, according to the wording of this bill, would be classified as a food processor (We bag cut lettuce for sale at our local farmers market.) This is the point where the bill negatively impacts small farms and the local food movement. You can see my thoughts on the following posts http://www.robertsroostecofarm.com/2009/03/food-safety-modernization-act-of-2009.html and http://www.robertsroostecofarm.com/2009/03/food-safety-modernization-act-another.html.
  7. Wednesday, March 25th, 2009
    Good post. Nice to read this. I do think we should continue to voice our concerns and opinions to our congressional representatives about food saftey so that standards are implemented that support small farms. GAP certification is one way that food safety goes wrong, in my opinion.
  8. Farmer Pete
    Wednesday, March 25th, 2009
    Your statement is incorrect that missing from the criticisms of HR 875 was "endorsement from a reputable environmental or food organization.". You must have missed the review by The Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund. Their review is very critical of the bill. Their summary of the bill is the best and most complete I've seen yet. And they describe a lot more to fear about this bill than what you list above. See it at: http://www.ftcldf.org/news/news-02mar2009.htm
  9. Thursday, March 26th, 2009
    Food Safety Regulations - Trojan Horse
    I'm being told that H.R. 875, The Food Safety Modernization Act, is not going to pass. I shouldn't worry about it. Apparently the bill that has the best chance of passing is H.R. 759, The Food and Drug Administration Globalization Act. It is in committee now. It is much harder to get a handle on. Much of it is written as amendments to Title 21 of Federal Code. That makes it pretty tough for a non-lawyer like me to wade through it and figure out what it means. There is a section dealing with Safety Standards for Fresh Produce that makes me think small farmers who "process" produce on farm should be concerned with this bill as well.

    Here is the text of that section.

    SEC. 104. SAFETY STANDARDS FOR FRESH PRODUCE.

    (a) PROHIBITED ACT.—Section 301 (21 U.S.C. 331), as amended by sections 102 and 103, is amended by adding at the end the following: ‘‘(pp) The production or harvesting of produce not in accordance with minimum standards as provided by regulation under section 419A(a) or a variance issued under section 419A(e).’’.

    (b) STANDARDS.—Chapter IV (21 U.S.C. 341 et seq.), as amended by sections 102 and 103, is amended by adding at the end the following:

    ‘‘SEC. 419A. STANDARDS FOR PRODUCE SAFETY.

    ‘‘(a) STANDARDS.—The Secretary shall establish by regulation science-based minimum standards for the safe production and harvesting of those types of fruits and vegetables that are raw agricultural commodities for which the Secretary has determined that such standards minimize the risk of serious adverse health consequences or death.

    ‘‘(b) CONTENTS.—The regulations under subsection

    (a)—‘‘(1) shall set forth such procedures, processes, and practices as the Secretary determines to be reasonably necessary—‘‘(A) to prevent the introduction of known or reasonably foreseeable biological, chemical,

    12 and physical hazards, including hazards that

    13 occur naturally, may be unintentionally intro14

    duced, or may be intentionally introduced, in15

    cluding by acts of terrorism, into fruits and

    16 vegetables that are raw agricultural commod17

    ities; and ‘‘(B) to provide reasonable assurances that the produce is not adulterated under section 402;

    ‘‘(2) shall include, with respect to growing, harvesting, packing, sorting, and storage operations, minimum standards for safety;

    ‘‘(3) shall include standards addressing manure use, water quality, employee hygiene, sanitation and animal control, temperature controls, and nutrients; ‘‘(4) may include standards for such other elements as the Secretary determines necessary to carry out subsection (a);

    ‘‘(5) shall provide a reasonable period of time for compliance, taking into account the needs of small businesses for additional time to comply; and ‘‘(6) shall provide for coordination of education and enforcement activities by State and local officials, as designated by the Governors of the respective States.

    ‘‘(c) PRIORITIZATION.—The Secretary shall prioritize the implementation the regulations under subsection (a) for specific fruits and vegetables that are raw agricultural commodities and have been associated with food-borne illness outbreaks. ‘‘(d) ENFORCEMENT.—The Secretary may coordinate with the Secretary of Agriculture and shall contract and coordinate with the agency or department designated by the Governor of each State to perform activities to ensure compliance with this section.’’.


    I'll keep working my way through this as best I can and as time allows. I'd appreciate feedback from others who have looked at it from a small farm perspective.
  10. Thursday, March 26th, 2009
    Alan, thanks for the tip on HR 875 and HR 759. I haven't been able to find a thorough review of 759 as I found for 875 (reported above). But I did find a brief comparison of all the proposed food safety bills: HR 759, 814, 875 and S 425, and S 510 at
    http://www.ftcldf.org/aa/aa-14mar2009.htm
    They say "Small sustainable farms are fundamentally different from factory farms, and should not be regulated the same way! All of the proposed food safety bills suffer from a "one-size-fits-all" approach."

    Also, it kinda bothers me that Food and Water Watch are backers of HR 875; anyone have reason to be suspicious of that group?
  11. Thursday, March 26th, 2009
    Farmer Pete,

    I've done my best with 875 on my blog (http://www.robertsroostecofarm.com/2009/03/food-safety-modernization-act-another.html) here and several other posts. HR 759 is still in process. There doesn't seem to be much effort on this one. Think the Trojan Horse is working.
  12. Noel
    Thursday, March 26th, 2009
    I don't trust any congress or senate member who's husband is a political strategist. He probably made millions off Monsanto's making sure his wife introduced this bill. In fact, that women should be removed from her public service job for being in direct relation to her Husbands business. Basically, he makes money making from companies who want bills passed, and his wife brings them to fruition.

    Everyone should be suspicious of any group like "Food and Water Watch", we don't know who started those organizations, or who funds them, or who could have infultrated into them.

    Greenpeace is the only organization that I trust at this point, the rest can prove themselves to the public for all I am concerned.

    Lets just put it this way, some power hungery company like Monsanto tries to take our rights away in growing our own food, there will be an uprising so big, so powerful, and so against that evil company, they will be lucky if they are still considered a viable force in the food industry.

    And it will be like that, I know too many people, and all are against Monsanto. The word is getting around fast, along with fluoridation, aspartame (Monsanto poison), etc....People know what is going on!
  13. Sharon Sabo
    Friday, March 27th, 2009
    All of the "paranoia" could be cleared up if an amendment was added specifically excluding home gardens, small producers, or markets.

    Why this hasn't been done with the information presented is beyond my understanding, but then I am just "Jane Average" out here.

    Once an "all encompassing" Bill is passed into Law it becomes difficult to change the Language presented - therefore just include the exclusion, look like the "good guys" and go forward.

    After all - who are the Legislators looking out for if not the American Citizens?
  14. Friday, March 27th, 2009
    click my name above for an idea on more sensible legislation.
  15. Wednesday, April 1st, 2009
    I was feeling a lot like the HYPE was too much. http://www.robertsroostecofarm.com/2009/04/food-safety-legislation-and-grand.html then some more sane political analysis came across my desk and made me rethink a bit (http://www.robertsroostecofarm.com/2009/04/food-safety-legislation-and-grand.html). It may or may not be a grand conspiracy, but someone is working really hard to get some version of this bill passed.