During the past weeks, a few news stories have highlighted the distinctions between two different legislative approaches to address the issue of food safety. There is little question that the public is becoming increasingly aware and concerned about the safety and quality of food. The impetus is accordingly growing across the country to get the pending FDA Food Safety Modernization Act, S. 510, which would give the FDA more authority and money, finally passed and enacted into law.
Opponents, however, argue that this legislation favors an industrial agricultural system, and that local food systems provide significant food safety benefits. In fact, in Wyoming and in Florida, state legislatures were considering bills to lessen the regulation of local “cottage” foods, with their proponents arguing at least in part that this approach would increase food safety.
An increasing number of Americans is justifiably becoming concerned about outbreaks of illness linked to contaminated food, and about the capacity of our existing food safety system. A September 2009 survey among likely voters across the nation found that about 9 in 10 support the federal government adopting additional food safety measures. Overall, 58 percent of voters were worried about bacterial contamination of the food supply–with about a third saying they worry “a great deal.” The survey showed that American voters overwhelmingly believed the federal government should be responsible for protecting the food supply, and that the voters supported new measures to ensure it has the authority and capacity to do so.
The public’s increasing concern about food safety was recently validated by the results of a study on the cost of acute foodborne illnesses in the Unites States. The study by a former U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) economist estimates the total economic impact of foodborne illness across the nation to be a combined $152 billion annually. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that approximately 76 million new cases of food-related illness–resulting in 5,000 deaths and 325,000 hospitalizations–occur in the United States each year. This recent study used an FDA cost-estimate approach: health-related costs were the sum of medical costs (physician services, pharmaceuticals, and hospital costs) and losses to quality of life (lost life expectancy, pain and suffering, and functional disability). The study ranked states according to their total costs related to foodborne illness, and determined the annual cost per case for an individual, which was approximately $1,850 on average per illness nationwide.
Many have been pressing for changes in the food safety system to enhance the regulatory and enforcement authority of local, state, and federal agencies to inspect, investigate, and recall food products as needed. A report released in April 2009 called for leadership by Congress and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to build an integrated national food safety system to make effective use of the best science and all available public resources to prevent foodborne illness. The report noted progress in how federal, state, and local agencies collaborate to detect foodborne outbreaks, but also found that state and local agencies are hampered in their response to and prevention of outbreaks by lack of focused federal leadership, chronic underfunding, wide disparities in capacity in all areas of food safety, and barriers to information sharing and collaboration. The report then made 19 specific recommendations for strengthening state and local roles, and for building an integrated national food safety system that works effectively to prevent foodborne illness.
In October 2009, the American Public Health Association (APHA) recommended legislative changes to establish new authority to strengthen the food safety system. The APHA found that FDA lacks the authority to require tracking, maintenance, and access to records on foods, including fresh fruits and vegetables. The FDA does not have the authority to mandate a recall when a food is identified as contaminated or is a source of an outbreak. Also, limited funding at all levels restricts the ability of state and local health agencies to conduct robust prevention and surveillance activities. The APHA accordingly recommended legislation that would in part: improve coordination among local, state, and federal agencies to enhance surveillance, investigations, and response; implement national food safety plans, including testing, record maintenance, and reporting of positive contamination results; and authorize FDA mandatory recalls and tracebacks. The APHA finally supported food safety enhancement and modernization legislation then already pending in Congress.
Most recently, “The Hill”, a Capitol Hill newspaper, published several Op-Eds highlighting the bipartisan support for the pending FDA Food Safety Modernization Act, S. 510, and urging the Senate to act. Caroline Smith DeWaal, director of food safety at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, emphasized the broad, bipartisan support for S. 510, a bill that would increase the FDA’s authority and capacity to regulate 80 percent of the food supply. Sen. Herb Kohl (D-WI), chairman of the Senate agriculture appropriations subcommittee, called for urgent action in his Op-Ed, stating that “The Senate must act this year to restore consumer confidence and ensure a safe and abundant food supply.” Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT), chairwoman of the House appropriations subcommittee, which oversees the USDA and FDA budgets, called for simplifying the food safety system by centralizing food safety activities into one agency.
In sharp contrast, however, recent headlines have also highlighted a quite different approach to the issue. This other approach in fact favors reducing food safety inspections, certifications, and similar regulations, advocating instead for the increased freedom of local producers to produce and market their products. State legislators in Wyoming and Florida have recently been working to enact similarly inspired “Food Freedom Acts”.
House Bill 54, the Wyoming Food Freedom Act, passed out of a Wyoming House committee on February 18, 2010. The bill proposed to exempt all “cottage foods”, or foods prepared in home kitchens, including potentially hazardous foods such as dairy products, canned foods, and sauces, from regulation. The stated purpose of the bill was “…to allow for traditional community social events involving the sale and consumption of homemade foods and to encourage the expansion and accessibility of farmers’ markets, roadside stands, ranch, farm, and home based sales and producer to end consumer agricultural sales …”.
Those in favor of the Wyoming Food Freedom Act claimed it would allow small farmers and food producers to sell direct to consumers without their need to spend the significant funds required to get proper certifications–a financial burden that can put small farmers and food producers out of business. As regards food safety, proponents argued that industrialized and inspected foods are no guarantee of safety, and that the highest quality, and most nutrient-dense food is the closest to the source. Also, those in favor of the bill claimed that community fosters responsibility, and that local producers who sold low quality and unsafe food would have to answer to their neighbors and would not be in business long.
Critics, however, fear the increased risk for foodborne illness outbreaks if House Bill 54 passed into law. Those in opposition to the bill supported the inspection and licensing process in place because it allows inspectors to help cottage businesses minimize the risk of distributing foods contaminated with foodborne pathogens. Ultimately, they prevailed, and despite passing through the House Committee, the b
ill failed to pass through the Senate Agriculture Committee on February 26, 2010, effectively shelving the legislation, at least for this session.
In the meantime, in Florida, legislators are debating the merits of the proposed Florida Food Freedom Act. The articulated purpose of the Act is to initiate lighter inspection from USDA for small farmers. The Florida Food Freedom Act would define a single link food distribution chain that starts with the food producer, or the producer’s agent, and ends with the consumer. The Act would then exempt that single link food distribution chain from the regulatory oversight that a longer, multi-layered food distribution chain would be required to have. Its proponents argue that the Act would allow family farms to remain profitable and viable, creating new local businesses and jobs, as well as feeding the growing demand for locally grown food.
Advocates for the Act also claim that it would enhance food safety. They argue in part that the closer relationship between the producer and the consumer, including the producer’s integrity and the consumer’s interest in and knowledge of how the food is raised, harvested, and prepared, would provide sufficient oversight. The biggest threats to food safety are claimed to be centralized production, centralized processing, and long distance transportation. Small farms and local food processors would instead be part of the solution to food safety, as local food systems are inherently safer and more traceable. Additionally, the Florida Food Freedom Act would require all people selling directly to the end consumer to become certified food protection managers.
It is likely that the substantial differences in these approaches for legislation to increase food safety are primarily a function of different political philosophies and economic agendas, as well as concern with the safety of food products. It is somewhat comforting, however, that the importance of improving food safety as a necessary goal is increasingly acknowledged and recognized, regardless of the diversity of means proposed to attain that goal.
1. Pew Charitable Trusts, Commissioned Survey: “Americans’ Attitudes on Food Safety”, September 2009. Available at www.makeourfoodsafe.org.
2. “Health-Related Costs from Foodborne Illness in the United States”, Robert L. Scharff, March 2010, Produce Safety Project. Available at www.producesafetyproject.org.
3. ” Stronger Partnerships for Safer Food: An Agenda for Strengthening State and Local Roles in the Nation’s Food Safety System”, Department of Health Policy at the George Washington University School of Public Health and Health Services, with the Association of Food and Drug Officials (AFDO), the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials (ASTHO), and the National Association of County and City Health Officials (NACCHO), April 17, 2009.
4. “Creating a Safe Food System for America”, American Public Health Association, Issue Brief, October 2009.
5. “More Calls for Senate to Act on Food Safety“, Helena Bottemiller, Food Safety News, Feb 26, 2010.
6. “Committee hears testimony on food freedom”, Bill McCarthy, Wyoming Tribune Eagle, February, 17, 2010.
7. “Florida Farmers Anxiously Await Florida Food Freedom Act”, Suzanne Richmond, Orlando Gardening Examiner, February 22, 2010.
8. “Support Florida Food Freedom Act”, Farm-To-Consumer Legal Defense Fund, at the ftcldf.org website, last edited 2/26/2010.