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Theater of the Absurd: S. 510 in the Media

With last week’s Senate action on major food safety legislation, mainstream media coverage of food safety has picked up considerably, bringing a flurry of entertaining and even absurd articles and cable news clips to a discussion already plagued by false rumors and paranoia.

Newspapers across the U.S. covered the historic Senate passage of the FDA Food Safety Modernization act, many hailing the bill as a long-overdue move towards revamping food safety laws that haven’t been significantly updated in over seven decades.

Network newscasters reported along the same narrative. The Early Show on CBS called the 73-25 vote for passage “a rare display of bipartisanship” in an era of political gridlock.

Newscasters emphasized that with little time remaining in the lame duck session, the bill would need to move quickly to the House, which passed a stronger version of the legislation in July 2009, so that President Obama could sign the bill before the end of the year. CBS reported that with time constraints the House would have to pass the Senate version “word for word” if it is to become law.

But as Food Safety News reported last week, the Senate version is in serious jeopardy because it contains a provision raising fees that is technically unconstitutional.  Article 1, Section 7 of the law of the land says that revenue-raising provisions must originate in the House.  It remains unclear whether the House will pass a version amendable to the Senate in the next week or two, or whether Congress will have to start over in the 112th session in 2011.

After the constitutional snafu came to light, a number of headline gems cropped up: “Oops, they did it again: Another unconstitutional bill,” “Why is food safety a partisan issue?,” “Lobbyists Feast on Food Safety Bill,” to name a few.

The talking heads

The real mud-slinging and name-calling came by way of cable news, a medium that oftentimes devolves into infotainment.  Radio and TV talk show host Glenn Beck, who has an audience of millions, lambasted the bill as a government takeover of the food supply last week on right-leaning FOX News.

“Do you have your phone handy? Because I want you to call Washington, right now. Congress is working hard to make sure that your food is completely safe.  Now, you may be thinking to yourself: Glenn, my food is already safe.  But, that’s just how stupid you are,” Beck says sarcastically.  “Apparently our food is very unsafe.”

During his diatribe, Beck holds up a copy of S. 510, which appears to have a couple hundred extra pages added to it for effect.

“Who has a safer food supply than us and feeds 300 million people?” posits Beck.  “Is there a big problem I don’t know about?  I know there was a big problem with spinach a couple years ago and guacamole, or avocados, or something.  I think that was quickly resolved with minimal, or no interruption, to our normal food supply.”

Beck concedes that “we can always improve,” in the same breath as he shreds the bill, calling it a “massive, massive expansion in government regulation.”

“If you think your food prices have already gone up, oh just wait…” he says, adding that the company that stands to benefit from the bill is the widely criticized agriculture giant Monsanto.  “They love this bill, they’re in favor of this bill.”

As niche environmental publication, Grist, said last week, in its most recent online food safety bill discussion:  “Some advocates are still sending emails, Tweets, and Facebook posts insisting that the Senate did Monsanto’s bidding by crafting S. 510. (We’re among the company’s biggest critics, but even we can’t see the connection on this one.)”

“They control your food, they control you,” added Beck, referring to the government.  “This is about control and, in the end, starvation.”

The Ed Show, on left-leaning MSNBC, shot back at Beck’s assertions on the air–and over the radio air waves. On the radio Beck called what Congress is doing on food safety “criminal,” calling the chamber out of its mind for a move that he believes will raise food prices, “this is what Stalin did.”

“Glenn, if you wanted to talk about higher prices, let’s talk about the billions of dollars American farmers and manufacturers lose in cases of tainted eggs, spinach, and meat.  Now, you don’t think that that leads to higher prices, do ya?,” retorts host Ed Shultz.

“Preventing food contamination means preventing financial losses, as well as illness, and death,” adds Shultz, who goes on to call Beck’s rant “contaminated psycho talk.”

Faux-media superstar Jon Stewart took the cake as far as absurd media last week with his segment: “The Food, the Bad, and the Ugly.”

“What!? The Senate did a…thing?” joked Stewart. “They passed real, actual legislation? About food safety…”

Stewart’s The Daily Show ran media clips featuring Fox News and CNN outlining the tenets of the bill, which include more frequent inspections of food facilities.

“Ah more frequent inspections. I guess what, like, twice a month instead of [once]. You know what I mean?” asked Stewart sarcastically.  He then featured a clip of a CNN reporter explaining that FDA inspections do not occur very often.

“It’s really quite amazing right now that a lot of FDA inspectors, they might not go to a facility but perhaps even once a year,” says a correspondent for CNN’s American Morning. (According to the Government Accountability Office, high-risk domestic food facilities receive an inspection, on average, once every five years.)

To that news, comedy-master Jon Stewart slowly spits out the hot dog he was eating on set. “I should have known you can’t make flavor like that under proper supervision,” he said, pointing to his all-American hot dog.  Later in the segment, Stewart spits out Spaghetti-Os after running a montage featuring a bevvy of food recalls over the last two years.

“Oh I see, we [passed the bill] because our food is killing us,” adds Stewart somewhat sarcastically.

Stewart also took shots at Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) and political commentator Beck for bashing the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.  “That damn FDA, founded a hundred years ago, just to make sure the milk bottles you got were full of milk and not white paint and rat [feces].”

“But, at least they passed something,” shouts Stewart–a sentiment expressed by almost every major newspaper that ran a story about the bill.  Across the board, media have recognized that in the current contentious political climate, the 3-1 bipartisan vote in the Senate was notable.

Of course, Stewart also mocks the constitutional snag that has the bill at a standstill: “I jinxed it, didn’t I?”

© Food Safety News
  • For me, the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act (S 510) and the Food Safety Enhancement Act of 2009 (HR 2749) are the manifestation of the old saying, “The road to Hell is paved with good intentions.”
    Their journeys within our Congress show clearly the direct correlation between the quality of our journalism and the quality of our legislative process.
    Why should we expect our legislators to be wise in the face of such a profoundly dishonest debate?
    America needs journalists and publications that begin each day as if they were witnesses in court by answering the question, “Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth in everything you publish today?” The American people need a resounding “I do!”
    In doing so, their honesty would ultimately compel the same honesty from those of us participating in the debate.
    There are, at least, three of us participating in this debate who should understand the power of such honesty because we experienced its empowerment during the 4 years each of us voluntarily participated in the Davidson College Honor Code. (For more info, please see “The Honor Code and Pledge” at http://www3.davidson.edu/cms/x8918.xml.)
    Over the years, the words used to describe the Davidson College Honor Code have changed, as each generation of Davidsonians made it their own. Part of the current Honor Code says, “Lying is intentional misrepresentation of any form. Cheating is any practice, method, or assistance, whether explicitly forbidden or unmentioned, that involves any degree of dishonesty, fraud, or deceit.”
    This code is so much of the fabric making up Davidson College that professors hand out exams and then go back to their offices. At the end of the exam, each student finishes with the single word, “Pledged.”
    So, if anyone ever has a question about the honesty of something I have said or written about this food safety legislation or anything else, all that person need do is to ask me, “Will you pledge this as you did when you were under the Honor Code of Davidson College?”
    Michael Taylor, Deputy Commissioner of Foods of the FDA, and Margaret Brooks, Legislative Assistant to Sen. Richard Burr, will also understand the question.
    For me, it is quite simple.
    On my honor, I will speak and write the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth about the food safety legislation being considered by Congress. Furthermore, if I later realize that I have been mistaken in something I have said or written, I will openly admit it and make amends for my mistake.
    I invite everyone else in this debate to join me in making the same pledge AFTER having read the description cited above. Be forewarned. If you join me, then we also have a mutual covenant with each other to report immediately all violations of this honor code of which we have first-hand knowledge. The failure to do so is itself a violation of our honor code.
    If there are questions, comments or additional Davidson alums participating in this debate, please write me at healthyfoodcoalition@gmail.com.

  • Mark Rhoads

    In my work for a radio show on public policy I routinely talk to as many people as I can in both parties who would describe themselves as progressive or conservatives and none of them oppose food safety of course. But some from both ends of the spectrum are not sure they can trust the FDA to restrain itself from going too far in grabbing power for itself without adequate accountability to Congress or feedback from the public. This scepticism of course applies to several other regulatory agencies famous for trying to build their empires to the absolute maximum. There are many dedicated and professional public servants who work for FDA and who care about the safety of the food supply. But unhappily due to a reputation FDA has been building for itself, the agency no longer gets the benefit of the doubt it once did so the issue becomes not food safety, but the credibility and trustworthiness of the FDA.

  • For me, the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act (S 510) and the Food Safety Enhancement Act of 2009 (HR 2749) are the manifestation of the old saying, “The road to Hell is paved with good intentions.”
    Their journeys within our Congress show clearly the direct correlation between the quality of our journalism and the quality of our legislative process.
    Why should we expect our legislators to be wise in the face of such a profoundly dishonest debate?
    America needs journalists and publications that begin each day as if they were witnesses in court by answering the question, “Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth in everything you publish today?” The American people need a resounding “I do!”
    In doing so, their honesty would ultimately compel the same honesty from those of us participating in the debate.
    There are, at least, three of us participating in this debate who should understand the power of such honesty because we experienced its empowerment during the 4 years each of us voluntarily participated in the Davidson College Honor Code. (For more info, please see “The Honor Code and Pledge” at http://www3.davidson.edu/cms/x8918.xml.)
    Over the years, the words used to describe the Davidson College Honor Code have changed, as each generation of Davidsonians made it their own. Part of the current Honor Code says, “Lying is intentional misrepresentation of any form. Cheating is any practice, method, or assistance, whether explicitly forbidden or unmentioned, that involves any degree of dishonesty, fraud, or deceit.”
    This code is so much of the fabric making up Davidson College that professors hand out exams and then go back to their offices. At the end of the exam, each student finishes with the single word, “Pledged.”
    So, if anyone ever has a question about the honesty of something I have said or written about this food safety legislation or anything else, all that person need do is to ask me, “Will you pledge this as you did when you were under the Honor Code of Davidson College?”
    Michael Taylor, Deputy Commissioner of Foods of the FDA, and Margaret Brooks, Legislative Assistant to Sen. Richard Burr, will also understand the question.
    For me, it is quite simple.
    On my honor, I will speak and write the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth about the food safety legislation being considered by Congress. Furthermore, if I later realize that I have been mistaken in something I have said or written, I will openly admit it and make amends for my mistake.
    I invite everyone else in this debate to join me in making the same pledge AFTER having read the description cited above. Be forewarned. If you join me, then we also have a mutual covenant with each other to report immediately all violations of this honor code of which we have first-hand knowledge. The failure to do so is itself a violation of our honor code.
    If there are questions, comments or additional Davidson alums participating in this debate, please write me at healthyfoodcoalition@gmail.com.

  • Tracey Little

    This is tangled bunch of hog wash! In any case the people are always dependent on good coverage. In my eyes any person that makes or reports on or against any issue with out first having full knowledge or giving misrepresentation of any issues should be treated as a traitor to the people… And should be treated as such. Oath or not, the people are subject to the out come of any such reporting. As for the FDA the issues are the same… The people are all subjects to the final out come… And suffer for any and all wrong doings. Therefor any of these people that manipulate and or falsely engage in any type of wrong doings where the people are in any way subjected to a final out come should be treated in respect to the crime committed… If it be monetary then as a thief. If it be moral then as a rapist… And if death is in any way the final out come then murder… If this was the case then you wouldn’t have these issues… The fact is that our government and our news media are both at fault and not held responsible for there actions that affect the well being of People Of The United States… The problem is who do you go to when you have to fight City Hall? And how do you get satisfaction for the crimes that have already been committed? And how do you do it with out becoming martyr or being laughed at and called crazy? This may sound obtuse but just look at the people of our country and how they have become over the past decades… The truth is the country is now showing the results of decades of bad government and false reporting… Until it’s stopped you can only bank on one thing, more of the same… And as a result more and more hate and disbelieve in our government and the news media…

  • Send more t-shirts to the Senate! πŸ™‚

  • dangermaus

    Yeah, Fox has a lot of idiotic infotainment, but they’ve only recently started in on this topic. The people who have been pointing out problems with FSMA from the very beginning have been small business people and farmers that said that the bill (at least in its origional form) would have made it substancially harder for them to do business, and no one listened to them. The articles I read largely dismissed their concerns. As a result, of course they elevated their rhetoric! They thought this bill was going to put a lot of them out of business, and their customers (like me) thought it was going to become even harder to get their products.
    Why didn’t whoever designed this bill get the rapidly-growing small-scale, sustainable agriculture movement involved in the first place?

  • Robert G. O’Leary, Esquire

    If you want to know more about this bill from the largest health freedom organization, who have been following this legislation since it first reared its head more than a year ago, go to http://www.healthfreedomUSA.org. With all due respect, it sounds like the author of this article has not read this piece of legislation. I disagree with Glenn Beck on most things, and agree with most of what I hear from John Steward and Ed Shultz, but Glenn is right on this one. One simply needs to read at least pertinent parts of this legislation to understand this.
    This bill is being essentially snuck through as quickly as possible. If the House wisned to be on the up and up about this, why did they have to hide it on or around p. 426 in the spending bill passed tonight?
    If you really read this bill, S.510, you will see that it will violate States Rights,allows the FDA to stop organic and other farm production, and you will not have recourse in a court of law with rights of due process – only an “informal hearing” at the FDA in which they only will decide if you are in violation.
    The FDA started out as a good idea, but as with many ideas, they can get tainted by money and corporate interest. For some years, the FDA gets 80% of its monies from the drugs that the companies sell. The pharmaceutical companies are quite often linked with the Big Agribiz companies. So this intersection of corporate self-interest puts the consumer at risk and this kind of power grab inevitable.
    One other worry about this bill is that it will open the door to a nasty system called CODEX Alimentarius, originally put together by the Nazi that made the poison gas used in the death camps. Codex has meetings that are open to country representatives, corporations, a handful of health organizations, but not the public.
    This system is going into full affect in Europe and in Canada next year and has already has restricted vitamins to lethally low limits, outlawed supplements that are outside of our RDA set of vitamins, and allows GMO’s and hormones in all of their foods. If this thing goes worldwide, at least one of the world agencies calculates that one million people could die within a short time and another two million people could die several years thereafter from malnutrition. Some have called this the “Food Fascism Bill” instead of the “Food Safety Bill.” Of course, corporate interests are good at helping to name bills – remember “Leave No Child Behind” and the “Patriot Act.” Check out the http://www.healthfreedomUSA.org website and, if you wish to lend your voice to this argument, take one of the action items.

  • Dog Doctor

    Robert G. O’Leary, Esquire, OMG please read the bill that the senate passed at http://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/BILLS-111s510es/pdf/BILLS-111s510es.pdf
    You will not find any of the points you are making in the bill and a number of your comments are contradicted by the bill. I think Jon Stewarts description and characterization of Mr. Beck’s comments are spot on.
    Page 19 of the bill
    3 β€˜β€˜(k) EXCEPTION FOR ACTIVITIES OF FACILITIES
    4 SUBJECT TO SECTION 419.β€”This section shall not apply
    5 to activities of a facility that are subject to section 419.
    6 β€˜β€˜(l) MODIFIED REQUIREMENTS FOR QUALIFIED FA7
    CILITIES.β€”
    8 β€˜β€˜(1) QUALIFIED FACILITIES.β€”
    9 β€˜β€˜(A) IN GENERAL.β€”A facility is a quali10
    fied facility for purposes of this subsection if
    11 the facility meets the conditions under subpara12
    graph (B) or (C).
    13 β€˜β€˜(B) VERY SMALL BUSINESS.β€”A facility is
    14 a qualified facility under this subparagraphβ€”
    15 β€˜β€˜(i) if the facility, including any sub16
    sidiary or affiliate of the facility, is, collec17
    tively, a very small business (as defined in
    18 the regulations promulgated under sub19
    section (n)); and
    page 200 of the bill
    Training of foreign governments and food
    23 producers on United States requirements for safe
    24 food.
    it says to US requirements not Europe or any one elses
    I am not sure when Americans went to sleep and just started parroting Fox News and other less reliable sources of information but it is time for folks to do their own research and read what they are commenting about.
    As to the term Fascism, I have notice many young people 25 and under through that term around with out any knowledge of what it truely means. They haven’t or don’t know people who risk getting shot carrying their kids across the iron curtain to escape true fascist governments. So lets tone down the comments and look at what is in the bill. Do you think a small business are larger than $500,000 a year in sales?
    page 21 of the bill
    14 during such pe
    15 riod was less than $500,000, adjusted
    16 for inflation.
    So is it a million dollars? It is like the republican tax cut where everything should be included?
    If we don’t have regulations to protect the food supply, what else should we not have regulations to protect? the environment?, children?, labor? the tea party proposed to do away with minium wage.
    What protections do you Robert? protection from thieves? protection of your privacy?

  • Dan

    The hysteria surrounding this bill borders on mania.