We want building codes to be enforced so that our houses and office buildings don't collapse.
We want municipalities to ensure that our drinking water is safe.
We want doctors, lawyers, architects and accountants to be certified competent before they are allowed to practice.
We want the government to make sure that the toys our children play with, and the vehicles they ride in, are safe – and we accept that the feds must have the authority to mandate a recall of unsafe toys or vehicles.
We want the FDA to protect consumers from adulterated, unsafe or substandard imported products.
But there's something about federal government regulation of domestic food producers and processors that evokes public paranoia.
During the recent Senate debate on the Food Safety Modernization Act ("S510") – and in the days following that debate – several people have replied to my blog posts by enunciating their fears and objections to this overdue overhaul of the FDA's mandate. Let's examine some of these.
Excerpted from an Anonymous reader's comments, posted November 19th:
"This would give Big brother the power to regulate the tomato plants in your backyard. It would grant them the power to arrest and imprison people selling cucumbers at farmer's markets."
"This tyrannical law puts all food production (yes, even food produced in your own garden) under the authority of the Department of Homeland Security."
"This law would also give the U.S. government the power to arrest any backyard food producer as a felon (a "smuggler") for merely growing lettuce and selling it at a local farmer's market."
"It also sells out U.S. sovereignty over our own food supply..."
"It would criminalize seed saving (http://foodfreedom.wordpress.com/20...), turning backyard gardeners who save heirloom seeds into common criminals."
From another Anonymous reader, also posting on November 19th:
"The goals of this bill is to illegalize the growning (sic) and production of [food] unless licensed by the federal government. Any license given can be revoked. And it is highly unlikely that anyone that wants to grow a family garden will be able to get licensed."
From Greg, who posted on November 19th:
"Harkin thinks he is a GOD. This bill needs to be defeated like Satin (sic) was. Video of Harkin claiming he is God. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EdAPuUkxZbQ
Excerpted from the comment of an Anonymous reader, posted November 22nd:
"There are plenty of government agencies already in place to deal with food safety, and they continuously drop the ball. When the White House abolishes all of those existing US food agencies, then maybe I would support an alternative."
From Harry Hamil, posted November 19th:
"...very few of those rules will improve food safety because they will be so strongly shaped by a legislated HACCP-style approach that Dr. William Sperber showed way back in December 2002 doesn't deliver what it promises."
Now for the reality check:
- Backyard gardeners are NOT subject to the provisions of S510. The amended act that will be taken up by the Senate on November 29th states explicitly that the section on produce "...shall not apply to produce that is produced by an individual for personal consumption." Big Brother will not be confiscating your backyard tomato plants, people. And you won't be needing a license to grow your cucumbers.
- Small farmers who market directly to consumers – at the farm gate or via farmer's markets – will be exempt if their revenue from the sale of food is less than $500,000 per annum. This, too, is in the amended version of S510.
- There is nothing in S510 that prohibits seed saving. The word "seed" is not even mentioned in S510.
- Hamil's reference to Dr. Sperber's paper is incomplete, and implies that Sperber has determined HACCP to be ineffective. What Dr. Sperber actually said was:
"Food safety is not synonymous with HACCP. Food Safety is HACCP plus prerequisite programs. It is time for us to stop talking about "Farm to Table HACCP". Rather, we should talk about "Farm to Table Food Safety." This essential change in emphasis will allow us to focus on effective interventions and CCPs to protect the public health and it will eliminate the false expectations that HACCP alone can provide food safety assurance."
The HACCP provisions in S510 apply to those activities that benefit from HACCP, namely, manufacturing, packing, processing and warehousing. The "... production and harvesting of fruits and vegetables that are raw agricultural commodities ..." will be approached through the development of "...updated good agricultural practices and guidance for the safe production and harvesting of specific types of fresh product." This is entirely consistent with Dr. Sperber's philosophy.
As for abolishing all existing US food agencies, I don't think that the reader would like to take this country back to the days before there were any food safety laws – when slaughterhouses operated as described in Upton Sinclair's "The Jungle"; when food adulteration was common; and when there was no Pasteurized Milk Ordinance. Personally, I would like to see a single agency at the federal level with responsibility for all food safety inspection and enforcement. But abolishing the existing agencies without simultaneously creating a replacement for them is neither sensible nor practical.
The Food Safety Modernization Act is not perfect. It is a compromise between what FDA believes that it needs and what the politicians and the public are prepared to accept (and pay for). Passage of S510 does not guarantee an immediate, drastic reduction of the national incidence of food-borne disease.
But it will help.
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P.S. Please watch the video of Harkin – the video that Greg says is "Harkin claiming he is God" – and draw your own conclusions.