June 10, 2009
If you are not yet passionate about food safety, it’s time to get your gusto going. If you need a little push, I suggest watching Food, Inc. (discussed in detail by my colleague Ralph Loglisci on this blog). Part of the film features the tragic death from tainted meat of two-and-a-half-year-old Kevin Kowalcyk and the seemingly Sisyphusan efforts by his mother to get Congress to create better food safety laws. Her hard work, and that of many other advocates, is finally paying off. Consumers (read: constituents) are increasingly concerned with the issue and Congress is listening. Numerous bills have been discussed in the past few months, and now it seems one piece of legislation is taking hold: the Food Safety Enhancement Act of 2009. Word on the street is it’s due for mark-up as early as today.
While I normally bemoan the slow moving ship that is our democracy, the rapidity with which this legislation is moving forward raises some concerns. Mostly because the kind of legislation we need to protect and promote a sustainable, healthy food system should be nuanced. And nuance takes time.
If Congress isn’t careful, this new legislation could end up mandating food safety requirements that perpetuate our industrial food system–a system implicated in the rising obesity epidemic, diminishing natural resources, pollution to air, water and soil and numerous human rights abuses including low wages and dangerous working conditions (see Food, Inc. or read Fast Food Nation for more info). Such legislation could also drive sustainable producers out of business through “one size fits all” regulations around the type of procedures and equipment required for producers to be deemed “safe.”
The nuance we need is not merely creating legislation that distinguishes between small vs. large farms, but rather one that addresses how the food is produced. Take scenario A: There are dozens of small industrial food animal production operations, clustered over a small area. They grow animals in confinement with antibiotics in their feed to help them endure the crowded, unsanitary conditions, and bring them to market sooner. Manure is drained into pits then sprayed over cropland as fertilizer. These animals are sold to a single major processor, ground into meat, packaged and distributed to supermarkets.
In scenario B, we find a single pasture-based animal farm, of equal size to those in the scenario A. The manure fertilizes the pasture where it falls. Antibiotics aren’t administered unless an animal is sick. This farm sends the animals to a regional processing plant, to be packaged and sold at local farmers’ markets. Regardless of acreage, the public health and environmental risks associated with the pastured farm are, by and large, minimal compared to those of industrial production.
The same could be said about the scale of the processing plants. The higher the amount of food processed, the higher the risk of contamination and the greater number of consumers who would be affected by a single-source pathogen that is spread throughout the large plant and ends up in multiple packages of food.
The Food Safety Enhancement Act of 2009 makes some provisions for varying production and processing methods and this language needs to be strengthened and enhanced. Brian Snyder, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture outlines a tiered approach that is a great beginning for addressing the necessary nuance in any food safety legislation. Without consideration in the law for practices outside the industrial model or fees that adjust according to income, regulations could push sustainable producers out of business, or force them to adopt industrial practices.
Food safety legislation needs to be about how food is produced, processed and distributed. Two-and-a-half-year-old Kevin died from food borne pathogens that are invisible and indiscriminate. When tackling food safety, Congress needs to be the opposite: transparent and discerning.