Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Senate Food Safety Debate Spawns Hysteria, Hyperbole & Half-Truths

It's time for a reality check

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:
  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. There is nothing in S510 that prohibits seed saving. The word "seed" is not even mentioned in S510.
  4. 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.


  1. I would have to agree with you. All the hype over this food bill taking away our rights to grow in our own backyard -- is just that, "hype". Have someone just try to tell me I cannot grow my tomato plants on my yard...

    Any one of these people who do not see the power of this bill needs to talk with the mother of a young child who has been fighting for food safety laws for over a decade now because her child was killed by a HAMBURGER... I cannot remember her name at this time, but she has spoken before Congress many times trying to get a healthy food bill passed.

    We have such poor control over healthy foods in this country. It is no wonder that terrorists have not sought out to cause us harm through our food supply...

  2. @Anonymous.- I believe that you are thinking about Nancy Donley, President of Safe Tables Our Priority (www.safetables.org). Thank you for stopping by.


  3. Hi Phyllis,

    Great post. I am a diehard gardener and seed saver, yet I have been very disturbed by the lazy way in which opponents of S510 repeat half-truths they pick up from other blogs without stopping to question what they are reading. The brouhaha over this bill is a perfect example of how the Internet can sometimes lead to less knowledge being disseminated rather than more --- in the articles I've seen, people quote the same two or three sources, sources that seem far more alarmist than they are reliable.

    I've been looking for a reasonable voice to help me understand this bill, and so I'm so happy to have found your blog and this post.

    To the alarmists: think about this --- even if the government outlawed garden and seed saving, how on earth would they ever enforce it? No one, not even Monsanto, has the financial resources to arrest and/or prosecute every backyard gardener and small farmer! And once you realize just how inept and slow the federal government is, it's laughable to think they would make busting the backyard gardener a priority!

    Thanks again, Phyllis!

  4. @Chris.- Thanks for your comments. I hope you visit often.

  5. Being the reader who suggested abolishing all the agencies and exchanging them for an agency that actually works: If you actually read what I wrote, then you would realize I said I would consider supporting a new agency if they abolished all the incompetent food agencies...a tradeoff. And yes, I would gladly turn back the hands of time and run the risks because all of this repetitive regulation and incompetence totally stinks!!!

    And not worry about the enforcement against the saving of seeds if such a law was passed? Who is going to be the one who wants to runs the risk of incarceration or heavy fines over seeds? Are you? Illicit bean growing or illicit turnip growing...I can hardly wait.

    Do none of you see where this is heading? Out of curiousity, do you, by chance, have any connections to Monsanto?

  6. @Anonymous.- FOR THE RECORD: I am not now – and I have never been – affiliated, associated or connected with Monsanto in any way whatsoever.

  7. Good blog post. Thank you!

    As someone who subscribes to a CSA, grows a garden, and shops for organic produce at farmers markets I found the intitial comments swirling around this bill disturbing. I'm not a fan of Monsanto or other corporate, industrial-scale food producers by any stretch. However, you don't have to look very far before you see that the hysteria surrounding this bill could use some good fact checking. It reminds me of "death panel" claims about health care reform. Whether we as consumers and voters should support this bill is a good question. But in answering that question we need to rely on facts instead of internet hysteria.

    Thanks for a level-headed post. I hope this one climbs to the top of the search engines so folks get some better information.

  8. Well, the fact is the death panels do exist and this law will not eliminate food illnesses. 500,000 is not much money for someone trying to run a family farm and earn a living. I read the the bill and it has labor laws buried in it that offer any employee "whistleblower" protection that will be a nightmare of paperwork for an employer. This sets the stage for a farm-labor union and absolutely will drive CSA's and small farms out of business as intended.

  9. Food Safety Bill Passes, Spawns Industry Concerns -

    When the Food Safety Bill takes effect is an open-ended question...... So far, food producers and manufacturers have expressed mixed feelings about the bill.....

    ...some industry insiders warn that provisions such as the Tester amendment will undermine the FDA’s ability to assure food safety across the board.

    more -->> http://bit.ly/FoodIndustryConcerns


  10. @Lewis Poretz.- Thank you for posting this excerpt and link.

    Phyllis Entis


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