President Obama commended the House for passing HR 2749 yesterday, the Food Safety Enhancement Act of 2009, which amends the Federal food, Safety and Cosmetic Act. HR 2749 was a long time coming; lead sponsor John Dingell (D-MI) repeatedly noted yesterday during the hour-long debate leading to the House vote that “this bill is old enough to vote,” because versions have been floating around Capitol Hill for 21 years. Although Rep. Dingell is the oldest member of the House (he’s 83), he was on fire yesterday, and running circles around his younger colleagues who were voicing opposition. Over the last few months, Rep. Dingell and his co-sponsors worked tirelessly to create a unified front for HR 2749, and it passed with Bipartisan support in the House, as well as with the support (or neutrality) of everyone from major consumers’ groups to all kinds of growers’ groups, producers’ groups, and even grocers’ groups. Though the final Bill went through many dilutions on its way to yesterday’s vote (there were three major mark-ups in about 18 hours between Tuesday and Wednesday, when there was a first attempt to bring the Bill to a vote), it’s still the biggest change to the food safety landscape in fifty years.
What The Bill Does
In theory, the Bill will “modernize” our food safety system, by requiring more government inspections and oversight of food manufacturers, better monitoring of imported foods, and giving the FDA more authority to recall contaminated foods. Currently, even Class 1 (you could die) Recalls are voluntary; the FDA has no authority to force producers get their contaminated products out of the food chain. The Bill will allow the FDA to impose civil and criminal penalties and to implement mandatory food quarantines, both for the first time. But before any of the new food safety initiatives can happen, the Senate must act on the same Bill. They’re off to recess for five weeks, so unfortunately, in essence our food safety situation remains just the same as it was yesterday. Still, the Bill is good news–and good movement towards having a workable food safety scenario in the US that’s proactive, rather than reactive. Instead of scrambling to respond months after outbreaks start, with some of the new powers in place the FDA could well head off food borne disease outbreaks before they begin.
It has to be noted, however, that a bevy of critical food producers–and farmers–were removed from the Bill’s purview by the time all the wheeling and dealing had been completed, thanks primarily to the interventions of Rep. Colin Peterson (D-Minn), who won changes that added exemptions from most of the Bill’s provisions for farms, livestock, poultry and feed grain, all of which will continue to be regulated by the USDA. Peterson, who reps a major Ag state, and his supporters in the House–as well as his Ag constituents–were worried that the Bill would give FDA too large a role in regulating farm activities involving animals. It’s interesting to note that the biggest complaint from livestock farmers was that they raise animals, not food. That’s a critical difference in the minds of many in the Agrcommunity. But it also must be noted that with livestock remaining solely under the domain of USDA, we’re still without anyone leading the Food Safety and Inspection Service there, which monitors meat, poultry and eggs. This, despite the excellent and exhaustive revamp that’s been going on in the department under Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.
During the debate yesterday, there also were demands made for indemnification, which may be addressed in the future. Under this idea, if the FDA wrongly targets a food as contaminated, recalls it, and causes millions of dollars of losses to a particular section of the Ag industry, it must somehow address this economic loss. Still fresh in everyone’s collective memory was the identification of tomatoes as last summer’s source of salmonella poisoning, when in fact it was ultimately deemed to be jalapeno peppers. The US tomato industry suffered an estimated $200 million in losses, due to recalls–and to consumers refusing to buy tomatoes that weren’t even included in the recall.
Smaller and family farmers were particularly worried about the Bill, too, and concerned that it would place unfair economic burdens (such as registration fees) on their operations. Organic farmers (many of whom are small and family farmers) were also worried that organic practices would be illegal under the new Bill, due to changes in wording that seemed to make certain organic practices illegal. There were huge attempts made to address all these issues, particularly by Rep. Dingell, in order to actually get the Bill passed, and yesterday’s debate was at moments very dramatic. A smallish group of Republicans were exceptionally opposed to the Bill, and outraged that the Bill had been rammed through the committee without time for more debate. They likened the process to what went on with other recent Bills, when no-one had time to fully read new wording before voting. The Republicans were also worried about giving the government too much control over farmers and producers, and were alarmed that the Bill had not been under the rubric of the House Agriculture committee, but rather was in Energy and Commerce.
Rep. Virigina Foxx (R-NC) declared that “This bill reminds me of the tactics of the former Soviet Union — and we know how successful that was.”
We’ll bring the news to you.
Get the weekly Civil Eats newsletter, delivered to your inbox.
Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT-3), one of the co-sponsors of the Bill and a longtime champion of food safety, countered this with an equally dramatic statement: “5,000 people die each year from contaminated food. We went to war with Iraq when 3,000 Americans showed up for work and were killed in a terrorist attack!”
Clearly, though, sicne the Bill passed, there was far more Republican support than protest. And it’s terrific to actually have a food safety Bill in place, after so many years of living in, oh, 1912. But if there’s a recall this afternoon for, say, half a million pounds of ground beef due to E coli contamination (as there was just two weeks ago…), or for some salmonella contaminated cilantro, as there was at the beginning of this week, well, American eaters are still on their own. The Senate is concerned right now primarily with health care reform, and food safety still has fairly low status. But the economic burdens to public (and personal) health from food borne disease can’t be overlooked in the health care reform debate, either, which is an interesting disconnect on Capitol Hill. Some kinds of food borne pathogens can create life-long health issues, chronic disease conditions that persist long after the initial bout of illness. The Bill should be fast-tracked in the Senate, too.
So is it safe to eat again? Not yet. But it will be, soon, if things keep on moving forward. And kudos to all the hardworking people on the Hill, all the consumers’ groups and producers groups and farming groups–and food safety experts–who came together to help get this critical legislation passed. And not to be overlooked: Kudos, too, to all the bloggers who spent a relentless amount of time not only writing about food safety, and tweeting about it and debating it, but actively advocating for it…and who will continue to do so, until the President has signed this all into law….
Today’s food system is complex.
Invest in nonprofit journalism that tells the whole story.
Eddie Gehman Kohan is an award-winning writer based in Washington, DC. She created and writes Obama Foodorama, a blog that tracks the cultural and political changes of Obama administration food and agriculture policy, from White House initiatives through USDA. The blog began during campaign season, and Gehman Kohan is now the only independent blogger who actually reports *live* from the White House on a regular basis. Among other honors, ObamaFoodorama.com was recently added to the permanent archive of the Library of Congress as part of the web capture project that preserves critical historic documents that are "born digital." Her family has been farming in America since the 1700s, and when not on the White House beat, Gehman Kohan spends her time with livestock. Read more >
The harassment, abuse, and sometimes death of the marine observers who uphold sustainable seafood standards are the industry’s worst-kept secrets. Critics say the people and companies that earn the most money on tuna aren’t doing enough to secure their well-being.
Technically, bake sales will be a thing of the past (but we can still buy chemically preserved Girl Scout Cookies!).
This is a bad bill; good intentioned (maybe) - but still bad!!
Not long after my post went up in which I expressed this relief, one of my readers (who had the final version of the bill in front of her) went through the trouble of pointing out everything still wrong with it -- all the ways it would be devastating to small scale producers. Her summary is in comment #3 on this post.
We must make sure these issues are addressed in the Senate version of the bill!
All the best,