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Food Safety News

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Looking Ahead to 2014: State Budget Growth Might Finally Restore Some Local Health Department Jobs

In 2014, we’ll hear precious little about food safety from the federal government that will truly be new. For sure the White House has decisions to make on everything from poultry inspections to whom to nominate as the next Under Secretary for Food Safety.

Congress, paid to make decisions it rarely seems to get around to making, might even pass a Farm Bill containing decisions on catfish regulations to country-of-origin labeling. Federal judges, including those presiding over important criminal cases, will undoubtedly make their share of news.

However, real news, including some that will come as a surprise, may well emerge from the states, where 46 of the 50 legislative bodies are getting ready to begin annual deliberations (legislatures in MT, NV, ND and TX meet every other year). Heads are starting to turn to the statehouses now, just as they are turning on the lights and firing up the computer tote boards.

Home brewing

The trend spotters at the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) in Denver have spotted a couple of trends that may impact food safety. It is not unusual for an idea to succeed in one or two states and then spread quickly to others. That’s what happened around 2010 when a bunch of states made it legal to sell food made in home kitchens.

Those were called “cottage food” laws and generally made it easier to commercially market food made at home. That trend may now be extending to home brewing. Home brewers say they are interested only in making beer or wine for personal use by themselves and their friends. Where have we heard that before?

Two states lifted bans on home brewing last year, according to NCSL. Alabama law now says it’s OK to make homemade beer, mead, cider and table wine. Mississippi added wine to a law that previously permitted home beer making. And several states made it legal to transport homemade beer and wine to exhibitions, tastings and competitions. More similar laws are also likely. Everybody is going to want a taste!

NCSL says 375 of 1,500 alcohol-related bills were adopted by the states last year, most often loosening restrictions. Montana, for example, became the 38th state to permit wineries to ship directly to consumers. One area where tightening restrictions is popular is controlling underage drinking.

Raw milk

Another area certain to produce state-level legislation in 2014 is raw milk. In a new report published Dec. 31, NCSL took stock of where the states are now when it comes to raw milk. It found that 46 states have adopted all or part of the federal Pasteurized Milk Ordinance (PMO) to prevent milk-borne disease outbreaks.

The four states that have not adopted the PMO – CA, MD, NY and PA – have their own milk safety laws. The PMO sets national standards for production, processing, packaging and sale of “Grade A” milk products. Only “Grade A” pasteurized milk may be sold to consumers under federal law, but 30 states currently allow consumers to make raw milk purchases.

State bills are introduced every year dealing with whether or not raw milk sales should be permitted on the farm, through so-called cow share programs, or in retail stores. Still, 20 states prohibit the sale of raw milk in any form or venue.

The NCSL report says state legislators have three ways of changing raw milk policies. They are:

Statute: It says that any state statute conflicting with Section 9 of the PMO overrides the PMO.

Administrative rule or regulation: Also, any state regulation conflicting with Section 9 of the PMO overrides the PMO.

Policy: State policy determines whether ownership options include cow share programs and other considerations that determine actual access to raw milk.

A vote in the Wisconsin Senate, expected in January, may indicate which way the states are going on raw milk in 2014. With its nearly $30-billion pasteurized dairy industry, any opening to raw milk by Wisconsin will influence others.

Local health departments

NCSL says there is a “renewed effort to integrate the many public health programs into the overall health system,” while the National Association of County-City Health Officials (NACCHO) would be happy just to see some funding restored. Both might happen, at least in small steps.

For the first time, state legislatures will be confronting the reality of the federal Affordable Health Care Act (ACA) as it takes a more solid form. NCSL says state legislatures are going to be looking at how the ACA fits in with the existing public health infrastructure involving everything from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) down to “tiny county health departments.”

About 2,800 local health departments are the “first responders” for public health, with food safety duties ranging from conducting restaurant inspections to investigating outbreaks of foodborne illness. They have taken a massive hit from the economic downturn.

Cuts, often from state funds passed through to the local level, have taken away 43,900 local health department jobs since 2008, NACCHO reports. Job losses – and the documented numbers are enormous – translate into fewer restaurant inspections and less-effective surveillance of foodborne illnesses. They also mean that some outbreaks go unsolved.

State fiscal recovery

In its most recently completed state budget update, NCSL reports that most states are meeting or exceeding their own revenue projections, with “modest growth” being a commonly heard phrase. California’s budgetary strength is the best it’s been in a decade.

This means that budget writers in at least some states will be in a position to restore some of those cuts. States with either a statewide or regional structure for public health might see the quickest improvement, assuming those states are also the ones experiencing the best economic growth.

Health departments were still losing more employees than they were gaining in 2012, and these front-line organizations are badly in need of new capacity across all public health functions, from vaccinating children to stepping up inspections of restaurants and school lunchrooms.

They are hoping 2014 is the year when state balance sheets are filled with enough black ink to make a difference.

Back in Washington, D.C., it is probably a safe prediction that 2014 will be more productive than 2013 only because Congress last year might have been the least productive ever as measured by bills actually adopted. The first session of the 113th Congress passed fewer than 60 laws, according to the Washington Post.

The Farm Bill, with its unique mix of policy decisions and funding already delayed for two years, is likely to be adopted, maybe by the end of January. However, Congress voting up or down on a Farm Bill doesn’t mean that it won’t punt on some decisions. Without clean food policy votes, issues such as catfish inspections and country-of-origin labeling may continue to drain more time and energy than they should.

The year ahead will also see state and federal judges making a long list of decisions that will impact food safety down the road. The sentencing of the Jensen brothers later in January and the summer trial of the Parnell brothers will say a lot about future criminal prosecution of the worst food safety offenses. Meanwhile, what can literally be said about food, or at least about meat, is again being tested in a state court. A South Dakota judge will be deciding whether to try or toss Beef Products, Inc.’s lawsuit against ABC News, Inc., for saying “pink slime” too much or too often.

The first time President Obama nominated an Under Secretary for Food Safety, he went for a big name outside government. That move got twisted up because the big name had conflicts. In the end, Obama chose an insider and named Dr. Elisabeth Hagen to the position. Now that Hagen has departed, part of the ongoing Washington, D.C., parlor game will be to watch and see where the president looks for his next appointee to that important food safety post.

© Food Safety News
  • Bill Steadman

    FSMA.