Digest this: the new food safety act (and some very weird rumors)


by Kat Kinsman

On Tuesday, the Senate voted in favor of the long-stalled Food Safety Modernization Act. While a final vote date hasn’t yet been set, President Obama hopes a House vote will go through with similar gusto, saying "We are one step closer to having critically important new tools to protect our nation's food supply and keep consumers safe."

The bill, which represents the most sweeping overhaul of the food safety system since 1938, allows for greater governmental regulation of the U.S. food system – currently in the national spotlight for numerous egg and produce recalls that have kept Americans in fear of their breakfast since this past August.

Here's a breakdown of the key points:

Mandatory Recall Authority

The FDA would have the authority to issue direct recalls of foods that are suspected to be tainted, rather than relying on individual producers to voluntarily issue recalls. Currently, the FDA can negotiate with companies, but has no power to enact a mandatory recall.

Hazard Plans

Food producers would be required to develop written food safety plans, accessible by the government in case of emergency. These would include an analysis of possible risks associated with production of their food and a plan to fix it.

More specifically, the food producers would be required to identify and anticipate potential "biological, chemical, physical, and radiological hazards, natural toxins, pesticides, drug residues, decomposition, parasites, allergens, and unapproved food hazards that occur naturally, or may be unintentionally introduced; and identify and evaluate hazards that may be intentionally introduced, including by acts of terrorism" and develop a written analysis of the hazards that would "be made promptly available to a duly authorized representative of the Secretary upon oral or written request."

Tracing System

The Secretary of Health and Human Services would be required to create a food tracing system that would quickly zero in on the source of contamination, should an outbreak occur, and keep it from spreading further. They’d work hand-in-hand with food producers to "explore and evaluate methods to rapidly and effectively identify recipients of food to prevent or mitigate a foodborne illness outbreak and to address credible threats of serious adverse health consequences or death to humans or animals as a result of such food being adulterated."

Making Imports Safer

Importers would be required to verify the safety of all imported foods to make sure it's in accordance with U.S. food safety guidelines.

The Experts Weigh In

Despite the increased safety measures, CNN Health reports that many advocates say the bill is "historic but not perfect", and lacks "teeth" – noting that the FDA cannot file criminal charges against producers who knowingly put contaminated food into the market.

Senator Jon Tester of Montana, however, tells Eatocracy that this bill – with an amendment he co-authored, stating that food producers would not be subject to new federal requirements if they sell the majority of their food directly to consumers within their state, or within a 275-mile radius of where it was produced, and have less than $500,000 per year in sales – is a “win for anyone who eats food. Small processors win, farmers win, and even the big guys win because people will have faith in their product.” He adds, “This bill is designed to work. It’s not one size fits all.”

These processors would still be responsible for demonstrating that they have identified potential hazards and are implementing preventive controls to address the hazards, or demonstrating to FDA that they are in compliance with state or local food safety laws.

As a farmer himself – though he does not direct-market any of his food – he is especially proud. “Over the last ten or more years, I’ve watched farmers markets spring up across Montana. They’re becoming more popular as people are eating locally-grown food. A farmer has to be able to look his customer in the eye. If you passed the bill without the amendment, it puts that trust at risk.”

And as to allegations – rampant on conspiracy theorist and Tea Party-affiliated blogs as well as in our very own comments section – that this bill will allow the FDA to toss grandma in the slammer for sharing her jars of dilly beans, make home gardens illegal and appoint the head of the Monsanto corporation as Emperor of All Seeds? Tester laughs. “They’ve got to just read the bill. Unequivocally NO. That’s just a case of using fear.”

You may now return to your omelette. If you dare.