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.

Dan Gill/AP
Monsanto's Round-Up Ready Soy Bean seeds are controversial among small farmers who want a genetically diverse seed bank. While the Food safety bill does not explicitly restrict Americans from collecting seeds, it does make it more difficult, which could benefit companies like Monsanto. Monsanto is in favor of the 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"?

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.

Others see the law as too sweeping and say it gives Washington bureaucrats, including the Department of Homeland Security, too much discretion over citizens who want to exercise control over their family's food supply.

"You may be disposed to embrace a genetically modified, enhanced, and altered food chain, but for those of us who eat our foods unadulterated, raised naturally, and without benefit of the federal government mandating what we can and can't eat, SB 510 is one more giant step toward consolidating total power over the lives of free citizens," writes Michael Geer on the American Thinker blog.

Would SB 510 put America's cornucopia under the control of a "globalist mafia" led by the World Trade Organization?

No. Some people have been concerned that the bill would give international groups more power over food matters in the US. The bill does state that the US will not knowingly break any existing agreements with the World Trade Organization, but it doesn't cede any inspection or enforcement powers to international agencies.

Can I still share (and sell) vegetables from my garden?

Yes. Farmers who sell most of their harvest directly to restaurants, food co-ops, farm stands, and farmers' markets wouldn't have to register with the FDA under SB 510. And they wouldn't be subject to the regulations in the legislation. But such farmers would still have to abide by current state laws.

Even though the bill in essence orders the FDA to be nice to local food producers, some farm groups say it ultimately doesn't place enough limits on the agency's power over small farmers and even backyard gardeners.

Is Uncle Sam trying to seize control of the US seed bank?

SB 510 does require inspection of seed-cleaning machines – a provision that could make it harder for farmers to collect their own seeds and could benefit large seed producers like Monsanto. But the law does not specifically restrict the ability of Americans to collect and store seeds for their own purposes.

If it is harder for farmers to collect their own seeds, that could mean more dominance of genetically modified seed stocks, which farmers have to relicense every year. "Once you use that GMO seed the traditional genetic diversity of the seed bank dwindles and is lost," Kimberly Labno of the Penn State Cooperative Extension told the blog.

Who supports SB 510? Who's against it?

Supporters include General Mills, Kraft Foods, Monsanto, and the National Association of Manufacturers. Opponents include the American Grassfed Association, Family Farm Defenders, and the Small Farms Conservancy. The Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture, which represents smaller farmers, has backed the bill.

Eric Schlosser, author of "Fast Food Nation," and Michael Pollan, author of "The Omnivore's Dilemma," support the law in its current form. "SB 510 is the most important food safety legislation in a generation," they wrote recently. "The Tester Amendment will make it even more effective, strengthening food safety rules while protecting small farmers and producers. We both think this is the right thing to do."

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