Boost food safety without burning local producers

Billings Gazette

by Editorial

Federal food safety legislation has languished in the U.S. Senate for 13 months after the U.S. House passed food safety legislation, and  for 10 months after a Senate committee approved its version. What may finally get the Senate to act is the massive egg recall that broke over the congressional summer recess. Weeks after the recall started, Montana authorities were notified that some of the recalled eggs had been shipped to stores in this state.

Last week, the nonprofit advocacy group Center for Science in the Public Interest released a report listing 85 recalls of FDA-regulated foods that have been announced since the House passed its food safety legislation last year. Fourteen recalls covered all 50 states. Salmonella was the most common pathogen, accounting for 42 percent of recalls while another disease-causing microbe, listeria, accounted for 38 percent. All these recalls accounted for 1,850 illness reports. Christopher Waldrop, director of the Food Policy Institute at the Consumer Federation of America, told that “reported illnesses account for only a fraction of the true number of food-borne illnesses in this country.”

Bipartisan bill

“The contamination of eggs underlines that we urgently need improvements in the way FDA regulates the safety of food,” Jean Halloran, director of food policy initiatives for Consumers Union, said last month.

Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, chairman of the Senate health committee that passed the food safety bill last November said recently that he wants the bill considered this month. The bill Harkin proposes has been amended from the committee version with the support of Sens. Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., Richard Durbin, D-Ill.; Judd Gregg, R-N.H.; Chris Dodd, D-Conn.; and Richard Burr, R-N.C. Harkin’s bill would cost less than half of what the House bill would, according to the Congressional Budget Office. It would require less frequent inspections than the House bill.

Earlier this year, Gazette readers heard from Juli Louttit, a representative of the Montana Public Health Association, who wrote in a guest opinion that “sensible standards and inspection requirements that promote food safety need to be in place for producers large and small.”

In another guest opinion, Perry McNees of Good Earth Market argued that the bill’s reporting requirements would put some of the market’s local produce suppliers out of business. Many of these local growers gross no more than $50,000 annually and some only a couple thousand a year, he said.

Montana standards

Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., proposed an amendment that would exempt producers grossing less than $500,000 annually from requirements of the proposed law. That amendment would effectively exempt all Montana producers, Tester told The Billings Gazette editorial board last week. Tester called his amendment a good compromise that avoids promoting producer consolidation.

Oftentimes, federal legislation doesn’t fit Montana or other rural states. Food safety is a tough call on this count. Most of the big recalls that make the national news involve large companies, but contamination has occurred in small ag operations, too.

In Montana, the Department of Livestock inspects meat, milk and eggs. The Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services inspects manufacturers of prepared foods. Counties are responsible for having sanitarians inspect food service establishments. There are no official food safety standards or inspections for fresh fruit and vegetable growers, according to state and county public health authorities.

However, most fruit and vegetable producers here are microbusinesses. If they don’t deliver good, wholesome products, their customers know exactly who sold them the bad stuff. Trace back would be quick and the consequences would be loss of customers.

The Senate should approve Harkin’s food safety bill with Tester’s amendment to exempt small producers.