Michael Pollan on the food safety bill

Washington Post

by Ezra Klein

The Senate might get to the Food Safety Modernization Act as soon as tonight. Though I'm interested in the subject, I haven't been able to spend much time looking into the bill. But Michael Pollan, author of the Omnivore's Dilemma, has. His summary judgment? It would be "a tragedy" if it didn't pass.

Ezra Klein: What's your bottom line on this bill? Is it good? Bad?

Michael Pollan: It's very interesting that the consumer groups and the people representing smaller producers and farmers have come together. It didn't look like that was going to happen a few weeks ago. The bill as originally written basically treated all farms and food producers the same. It was one-size-fits-all regulation. This was a problem for smaller farmers and processors because the regulatory burden was going to make life difficult for them. They felt they weren't the problem, and to suffer as part of the solution to the problem was an undue burden.

So Jon Tester, an organic farmer himself, came up with an amendment exempting producers according to three criteria. If you sold half of your food directly to consumers or retailers, had sales under $500,000, and sold within 400 miles of where you were producing, you'd be exempt from the provisions of the bill. The consumer groups didn't like this because they felt there was a risk to food safety no matter the scale. The e coli outbreak a few years ago was a small producer feeding into a big wholesaler, for instance. So they came out against the amendment. And there were many small farmers willing to see the whole bill go down if the Tester amendment wasn't there, which I think would've been a tragedy.

But they managed a compromise?

Tester made some changes. The 400-mile radius struck a lot of people as very large. You could be near the Mexico border and sell in Los Angeles. But 400 miles is apparently an official USDA definition of local. So Tester shrank it to 275 miles and made some other tweaks to satisfy the consumer groups. So now the small and local food advocates and the consumer groups are together on this, and the Tester amendment will be in the managers amendment, which means it won't require a separate vote.

To back up on the bill a bit, what do you think of its overall thrust? There's obviously a lot going on in the legislation, but what problem is it basically aimed at solving, and does the solution make sense?

The big thing will be to give the FDA more authority and resources. The FDA has not until this bill had the authority to recall tainted food. This gives them that power, and more resources for inspections. It also pushes producers to write plans showing their points of vulnerability that the FDA can use. Now, it's essentially a voluntary system, and there are good critiques of that. But it's the best thing we've got going now. What this doesn't deal with is hamburgers and things under the USDA, which is where a lot of the risks are. But it could be a template for how we do it in the future.

This bill doesn't affect the USDA? That leaves a lot out, no?

In a better world, we'd be debating the creation of a food safety agency that doesn't separate meat from poultry. That balkanization is one of the biggest problems in food safety. FDA has fresh produce. They have eggs. But they don't have chickens. USDA has chickens. But once the egg is cracked and turned into Egg Beaters or something, it's back to USDA. It's completely absurd. And unfortunately, we're not addressing that.

Where do you come down on the safety of the small producers? It seems to me like leaving them unregulated could also endanger their business: If an artisinal cheese producer, or a farm with heritage pigs, ends up making a bunch of people sick, the resulting backlash and outcry could put all small producers at risk, or turn a lot of people off of local food.

It's an enormous danger. If there is a problem with a small producer, the FDA then gets authority over them — they lose their exemption. But that's obviously after the fact. But look, there can be a food safety problem at your house or at a church supper or on a small farm. But the scope can be contained. It won't affect hundreds of thousands of people in 50 states, as is true with larger producers. That's little comfort to the people affected, of course. But there is some risk in eating and always will be. If we were to choke off the renaissance of small farms and local food, we'd be losing one of our alternatives to a highly industrialized system that has special risks of its own.

Back when I reported more on this stuff, I thought that industrial food was similar to the financial system. It had made a lot of changes that got rid of smaller, more routine risks, but in doing, had opened itself to catastrophic risks where the system can break down in enormous, extremely harmful ways. So rather than a few people getting sick semi-regularly, outbreaks are rare, but they can affects millions of people at a time.

There are quantum differences when you're producing for a small firm and a major producer. When you mix spinach or lettuce from 50 different farms and one is contaminated, you're contaminating all of it. There's more traceability and accountability when there's what Tester calls "eyeball-to-eyeball" contact between producers and customers. The industrial systems are brittle systems. They lose a certain resilience. And that leads to risks of another kind.