America has never been known for our highly refined culinary tastes. The food powerhouses of the world tend to sneer slightly when considering the average American’s appreciation of fine food, influenced as it is by a culture that rejects savoring in favor of speed. However, hope has dawned on the horizon. The slow, but steady, movement towards street food, locally grown and organic, and small farms is reinventing how people buy, prepare, and enjoy everyday fare. Yet December 1st, 2010, the day that marked the passage of Senate Bill 510, may go down in history as the day the music died for local food in the U.S.
Briefly, S.B. 510 is a Food Safety Bill passed by the Senate to dramatically increase the regulation of food production. To me, the key parts are the requirements for record keeping, licensing, tracking, and yearly reporting that will radically increase the time spent on paperwork, and the processing of paperwork; read: bigger FDA. Interestingly, S.B. 510 also addresses food smuggling, suggesting that in the near future if you are not a properly licensed entity, selling your Brussels sprouts at the local farmers market may make you a criminal. One caveat that was included as an amendment that could be good or bad is the exclusion of food production operations that make less than $500,000 a year. Obviously the entire bill has a wide variety of implications presumed or otherwise, so read the summary here and form your own opinion.
Saving U.S. from Ourselves
Perhaps you remember the salmonella scare caused by contaminated spinach that recently occurred, or the egg scare? Lettuce taint? Polluted poultry? Bacteria beef? So the FDA may have a legitimate point about food related illness and the need for greater regulation of the food production industry. However, what the proposed legislation glosses over is that the majority of contaminated food stock comes from spoiled food or food cross contaminated in the home. What this means is that it doesn’t matter if existing regulation, like requiring sell by dates and sterility standards, are effective or not, people are poisoning themselves. Although we often hear of salmonella as one of the primary causes of food related illness, the FDA neglects to mention that 70% of the poultry sold in the grocery store is already contaminated with salmonella, a statistic that will be unaltered by the proposed legislation. So why aren’t people dropping like flies every time we scarf up chicken nuggets? Because, quite reasonably, most people cook their food and kill the germs that cause disease, with the added benefit of making food tasty. Logically, very little food contamination originates from fresh produce, as it turns out disease causing pathogens tend to be animal to animal or plant to plant. In the cases where produce disease outbreaks do occur, it is usually due to water contamination from upstream CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations), or from unregulated manure fertilizer. Just to put your chances of dying from eating fruits and veggies in perspective, in the U.S. over 100,000 people a year die from prescription drug interactions, while approximately 600 die from salmonella poisoning from all sources. Interestingly, prescription drugs are regulated by the FDA.
Deaths from Food Poisoning are Falling, Not Rising
While I am by no means opposed to regulation for the public’s safety, the obvious question is why increase regulation now, when deaths from food poisoning have begun falling on their own due to better sanitation and safer cooking practices. In the words of Colorado Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet, who was unaware of a mic left live after the vote: “It’s all rigged. The whole conversation is rigged”. Now, while I am by no means one to subscribe to government conspiracy theories, there does seem something a bit fishy about a lame duck Senate quickly and quietly passing a bill with such far reaching implications. Could this perhaps be related to forthcoming reductions in farm subsidies in budget balancing recommendations? Only time will tell, the fact that the American farmer’s lobby is one of the most powerful in Washington could just be a coincidence.
The Little Guys
From the sustainability perspective, the proposed legislation is not good. To begin with, the hundreds of thousands of additional reports and records that are going to be required are going to consume important natural resources as well as the resource of FDA energy. While we are still floundering for accurate FDA approved organic standards, the agency is busy making sure nobody is smuggling food. What really has people up in arms are the implications of S.B. 510. By requiring farms with revenue over $500,000 to follow more rigid standards, the government is providing a disincentive for any small farmers to expand, either by increasing crop production or hiring new employees. How convenient for the existing large farmers, that they can effectively set up roadblocks for future competition. Second, the legislation makes it nearly impossible for local farmers to provide produce to local restaurants and grocery stores by requiring an intensive paper trail and making food subject to seizure at any time, based on a subjective criteria that essentially says “if the FDA wants to.” While we’re at it, although organic farming by name is not mentioned, achieving compliance with the FDA requirements may not even be possible without using chemicals that are inherently against the nature of organic farming.
Protecting the safety and health of the public is one of the primary functions of the government, however, as with many complicated issues, where do you draw the line between protection and control? To me, I think Briscoe White from the Grower’s Exchange said it best, “Food production is too important to be left to government regulators or big farms. Small local and regional farms are close enough to their customers that they have to be accountable for the safety of the food they sell. And what makes small farms the safest source of food? [On small farms], the farmer and his family are the first to eat what they grow. Is there a regulation that will trump that?”
Emily McClendon is an environmental marketing specialist currently working at NeboWeb. She has a B.S. in Applied Biology from Georgia Institute of Technology and is currently pursuing her M.C.R.P. in Environmental Planning, also at Georgia Institute of Technology. She believes that communication and shared knowledge are the most important facets of conveying environmentally friendly practices. After participating in biological research, inter disciplinary planning, and interactive marketing, she is convinced a comprehensive approach is the only solution for creating a sustainable economy.