NOFA Policy Report
The cherry blossoms aren't the only thing a' popping in Washington, D.C. this Spring. NOFA has been a part of a number of delegations visiting members of Congress to represent the organic small farm point of view on various issues, including major activity on food safety. The legislative emphasis is due to acute public concern over the latest contaminated food recall - where transgressions by a single small-scale food processor (handling less than 1% of US peanuts) caused nearly 4,000 products to be recalled, $1.5 billion in losses, as well as 700 illnesses and nine deaths.
Plainly the convoluted and grossly deregulated processor oversight system is badly broken and needs fixing. The industrialized food structure of centralized production and nationwide distribution has created huge risks that were not even imagined when much of the current legislation was written back in 1906. The legislative thrust seems to be shifting away from consolidating all food oversight agencies into one entity and there is now a concerted effort to fix FDA, to make it more effective and transparent as well as giving it recall authority, something now solely in the hands of the food processors. Traceability - tracking backward to the source of contamination and forward to processors, distributors and sales outlets - is also a major issue before Congress.
In the face of a food safety overhaul however, small scale and organic farmers are rightfully concerned that government regulation will come down heavily on small producers - or in the zeal to finally clean things up, the baby will get thrown out with the bathwater. Meanwhile, even though the hysterical reactions to the rampant misinformation that has been circulating through the Internet has been debunked - we all stand to lose credibility because of it. There is no Monsanto connection to H.R. 875, for example, and Rep. Rosa DeLauro has clarified that gardeners and Direct marketers - to Farmers Markets, CSAs, roadside stands, local restaurants, etc - are completely exempt under her bill. It's time to take a deep breath and look at our situation with a clear eye.
As is usual with a first step in the legislative process, only a small piece of DeLauro's Bill concerning processors (Sections 204, Performance Standards for Contaminants in Food, giving recall powers and 205, Inspection of food Establishments, NOT farms) is moving forward.
It is important to realize that in the legislative process introduced bills and resolutions first go to committees that deliberate, investigate, and revise them before they go to general debate. And the majority of bills and resolutions never make it out of committee. With all the internet hoopla over HR 875 -- other, much worse, legislation is being overlooked:
-- S425, Sen. Sherrod Brown, which focuses on traceability (including livestock identification);
These bills all fall under the jurisdiction of the Energy and Commerce Committee, chaired by Henry Waxman, not the usual agriculture committees our farming groups have clout with. And importantly, there's an acceleration in the timetable -- Waxman's Committee has just prioritized food safety legislation over both health and climate change which were formally at the top of the list -- and they are expected to mark up a bill soon after Memorial Day. SO, we've got to keep our powder dry, move way beyond H.R. 875 and concentrate on the bigger picture.
To be sure, it's important for us to conscientiously let Congress know where we stand and what we're doing about food safety. The bottom line is that food safety is everybody's business and producing healthy, uncontaminated food is a major responsibility for all growers. But it's not lost on legislators that the inherent risks of direct sales to consumers at farmers markets, CSAs and roadside stands are vastly different than industrial-scale contamination - as happened when produce from a single field in California poisoned people in 44 states during the 2006 E coli spinach outbreak, for example.
This page was last modified on April 01, 2009 at 8:01:27 PM.
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