June 19, 2009

House Committee Exempts Livestock & Poultry From Food Safety Bill. Where’s the Dissent?

Ralph Loglisci

Ralph Loglisci

Food and Health Policy Writer

Courtesy: Laurea Padgett/Flickr

Courtesy: Laura Padgett/Flickr

During my TV-news days, I supported the old axiom; it must be a balanced report if we’re getting just as much negative feedback as we are positive responses. I found the same rule of thumb to hold true on Capitol Hill. Good legislation usually means each side had to make serious concessions, inevitably leaving a number of unhappy people to complain about its inadequacies. Perhaps that’s why I’m feeling a little uneasy over the latest developments surrounding the long overdue Food Safety Enhancement Act of 2009. After some serious arm-twisting from Big Ag and members of the House Agriculture Committee, the members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee unanimously agreed Wednesday to alter the proposed legislation and “exempt livestock and poultry from oversight by the Food and Drug Administration.” I’ve heard a lot of praise for the committee’s bi-partisan approval of the bill, but where are the dissenters? Where is the healthy debate?I understand why so many people continue to support the bill, if passed in its current form it will reduce the number of foodborne disease outbreaks. Many consumer groups are relieved that the bill remains as comprehensive as it is. In a recent news release the Consumers Union highlighted why the current bill is a significant move forward.

“The bill would go a long way towards preventing outbreaks like the ones we have seen with spinach and peanut butter. Among the many important provisions in this bill, we’ve pushed hard to require high-risk food processors to test for contaminants and tell the FDA when they find them, and we’re pleased that this provision was added to the bill approved today.”

The Center for Science in the Public Interest called the proposed legislation historic and that the bill has the support of a broad coalition of consumer and public health groups.

“The bill includes many measures that food safety experts have urged for years… It also would require the FDA to conduct more frequent inspections of food processing facilities, and gives the agency the authority to order companies to recall contaminated food.”

Excellent points, and I agree it’s a crucial first step, but I believe that it’s important to let people know that exempting livestock and poultry from FDA oversight seriously weakens the legislation, especially when you consider most foodborne illnesses in the U.S. are linked to food animals. Here are a few excerpts from the CDC’s website explaining how food becomes contaminated and what foods are most associated with foodborne illnesses.

“We live in a microbial world, and there are many opportunities for food to become contaminated as it is produced and prepared.  Many foodborne microbes are present in healthy animals (usually in their intestines) raised for food.  Meat and poultry carcasses can become contaminated during slaughter by contact with small amounts of intestinal contents.  Similarly, fresh fruits and vegetables can be contaminated if they are washed or irrigated with water that is contaminated with animal manure or human sewage.”

“Fresh manure used to fertilize vegetables can also contaminate them.“

If you listen to Big Ag’s argument, the FDA doesn’t have the know-how, manpower or money to do on-farm inspections, and besides USDA already has many of the powers the original act wanted to give the FDA. This may be true, but if lawmakers are serious about improving food safety, they should give the FDA the assistance it needs to get the job done, because we all know the USDA certainly isn’t. That’s not to say the food safety experts at the USDA don’t know what they’re doing, it’s just that the schizophrenic USDA policies, spilt between promoting agriculture and regulating it, have most inspectors hamstrung.

The American public should understand that this approach of catching all of the bugs at the processing level instead of at the source allows Big Ag to continue to produce food through its aging and unsafe industrial model instead of focusing on finding a better and safer way to make the food we eat.

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