THE DETAILS: The New York Times reported over the weekend that because the Senate schedule is so packed, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid attempted a limited debate on the food safety bill to speed things up, to the objections of Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), who is largely holding up the voting process.
A coalition of groups from the food industry, consumer, and public health communities recently sent Reid and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell a letter urging a vote on S. 510, the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act, which would give Food and Drug Administration the power to force food producers to develop food safety plans, establish a minimum inspection agency based on risk (currently inspectors roll through once every 10 years), and enforcement tools to call mandatory recalls if manufacturers refuse to announce a recall.
The coalition is made up of unlikely bedfellows; it's not often that industry groups and consumer and public health advocates agree on anything. Included are groups like Center for Science in the Public Interest, Consumers Union, Food Marketing Institute, Grocery Manufacturers Association, National Restaurant Association, The PEW Charitable Trusts, and U.S. Chamber of Commerce, among others.
WHAT IT MEANS: There is no doubt that the food safety system in this country needs a major overhaul. But local-food and sustainable-agriculture advocates worry that food safety legislation aimed to fix the big problems associated with industrial farming will actually harm small family farms. "We're in full support of comprehensive legislation. There's no doubt it's needed, and no doubt something's going to pass," says Mark Kastel, cofounder of the Cornucopia Institute, an advocacy group for sustainable family farms. "But it's corporate agribusiness that's literally poisoning our citizenry."
A cynic might say industry is jumping on board with the current push for legislation and opposing an amendment that would further reduce cost and labor burdens on small family farms—the Tester Amendment proposed by Jon Tester (D-Mont.), in part, to derail a blossoming movement in this country to buy direct from local, sustainable farms.
"Those farm families are eating that same food before we really do. It's a unique testing tool that corporate agribusiness could not buy, no matter what they were willing to pay for it," Kastel says. In direct marketing (a farmer selling to customers through a roadside stand, CSA, or farmer's market), if there was a problem, instead of a national recall that takes weeks or months to identify (the egg recall spans back to eggs packed as early as April), the problem would be pinpointed pretty quickly.
The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition notes that anyone who wants to help protect small farmers who even minimally process and sell their locally-produced products to local restaurants, schools, co-ops, and grocers, should tell their federal lawmakers to support the Tester Amendment. Kastel says this would take some regulatory and testing burdens off of small family farmers who don't have large staff, resources, or testing facilities.
"It makes sense to support the Tester Amendment," explains Kastel. "No matter what happens here, there's going to be somewhat limited government resources for oversight, and we want those resources to be applied to address the highest levels at risk."