Food safety bill 101: What are the facts and myths?
The Food Safety Modernization Act has riled everyone from liberal 'locavores' to conservative tea party groups. Here's a rundown of what's really in the Senate bill.
Senate Bill 510 – the Food Safety Modernization Act – aims to protect American consumers from picking up contaminated food at the grocery store. So why are critics calling it "the most dangerous bill in the history of the United States"?Skip to next paragraph
The legislation, which is likely to reach a Senate vote after Thanksgiving, would toughen regulations and inspections. It follows well-publicized incidents of contamination in recent years of things that Americans eat every day, including peanuts, spinach, and eggs. Some see the new legislation as necessary to protect not just against accidental or careless contamination, but against an intentional bio-terrorist attack on the US food supply.
Yet others are concerned that the proposed regulations, which are aimed at large food producers and packagers, could also affect local green thumbs who sell lettuce at the corner farmers' market. Some also worry that seed stocks will be put under the control of government bureaucrats. Such concerns have riled everyone from liberal "locavores" to conservative tea party groups.
Are the fears hysterical or well founded? We separate the wheat from the chaff:
What is SB 510, and what does it aim to do?
Spurred by recent E. coli and salmonella outbreaks, the food-safety bill would hand the Food and Drug Administration more power to recall tainted products, strengthen inspections of vegetable and meat processors, and demand that producers follow tougher standards for keeping food safe.
While some say that the requirements should apply to everyone who grows food for public consumption, the Senate last week amended the bill to exempt farms making less than $500,000 a year. With the so-called Tester amendment in place, the bill is likely to pass in the Senate. But it could get hung up in the new Republican-controlled House.
"This bill would for the first time give the agency the tools to prevent contaminated food from entering the marketplace instead of scrambling to react in the aftermath of major outbreaks," writes Carol Tucker-Foreman in south Florida's Sun-Sentinel newspaper.
What are the strongest arguments for the bill?
Many Americans believe inspection reform is needed to protect the national food supply. "Senators often talk about the importance of addressing so-called 'kitchen table' issues – the practical, everyday concerns of working Americans," Sen. Tom Harkin (D) of Iowa, a co-sponsor, has said. "Well, food safety is literally a 'kitchen table' issue."
Comprehensive reform hasn't taken place for years, Senator Harkin notes. "It couldn’t be more urgent or absurdly overdue," he said. "It is shocking to think that the last comprehensive overhaul of America’s food-safety system was in 1938 – more than seven decades ago."
What are the strongest arguments against the bill?
According to critics, it will create higher compliance costs for smaller producers, putting them at a competitive disadvantage against corporate farmers and producers who can more easily absorb costs, fees, and possible fines.
That's not the only type of expense. The legislation would cost the US government a total of $1.4 billion over four years, says Sen. Tom Coburn (R) of Oklahoma. One result could be higher food costs, some worry.