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.