Among the myriad of issues being considered in Congress, few touch the lives of Americans as directly as food quality. So it should come as no surprise that impassioned debate surrounds some of the more than a dozen bills under consideration in the House and Senate to reform and modernize the nation’s food safety system. While everyone agrees that safer food is a laudable goal, there is far less consensus as to how, or even whether, it can be achieved.
Restructuring the nation’s food safety oversight system is a “tremendous undertaking,” said Eileen Harley Jarvis, federal affairs director of the Grocery Manufacturers Association. “We’re not opposed to the concept, but it would take a lot of time and effort to figure out the details,” she told Food Quality. One bill in the mix has generated more than its share of controversy. Introduced in February by Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), the Food Safety Modernization Act of 2009 (HR 875) seeks to better regulate food production and distribution by stripping food oversight from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and giving it to a new agency, the Food Safety Administration (FSA), which would have beefed-up enforcement powers, including authority to order recalls, seize unsafe food shipments, and fine violators. Company officials found liable for foodborne illnesses could be sentenced to up to 10 years in prison.
Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) introduced the Senate’s companion bill to HR 875, the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act (S 510), in March. Neither bill has emerged from its respective subcommittee.
Internet and Blogosphere Frenzy
Rep. DeLauro, who chairs the House Appropriations subcommittee that oversees FDA spending, had introduced similar legislation last September, but the bill was one of hundreds not acted on during that session. This year, the reintroduced bill sparked an Internet and blogosphere frenzy bordering on hysteria. Critics claimed large agribusiness and herbicide companies, in cahoots with federal regulators, secretly crafted the bill.
Among other things, detractors claimed HR 875 would outlaw organic farming, impose controls on backyard gardening, and stamp out local farmers markets throughout the country. Government inspectors, they warned, would soon be scrutinizing your backyard radishes and tomatoes.
Rep. DeLauro’s office was inundated with complaints from constituents and even fellow lawmakers asking what she had against backyard gardening. “All of my colleagues, I have colleagues who come up to me on both sides of the aisle and they say to me, ‘Rosa, what’s this about 875?’” she told the The Huffington Post in April.
At first, Rep. DeLauro tried to ignore the controversy, but the online allegations increased. According to rumors, Rep. DeLauro’s husband was a consultant for Monsanto, which pushed the legislation in order to outlaw organic farming and mandate use of chemical herbicides, fertilizers, and pesticides. The bill would create federal food police that could fine and imprison backyard gardeners. “Didn’t Stalin nationalize farming methods that enabled his administration to gain control over the food supply?” one blogger posted. “Didn’t Stalin use the food to control the people?”
In an attempt to defuse what had become a full-fledged urban legend, Rep. DeLauro posted “Myths and Facts,” a document about HR 875, on her congressional Web site. No, she said, the bill would not make organic and backyard farming illegal. No, it would not curtail farmers markets. No, her husband was neither consulting for Monsanto nor involved in drafting the legislation.
“The focus is on large producers, where the problem is centered, not small farmers or organic farmers,” Rep. DeLauro told Food Quality. Stripping food safety responsibilities from the FDA and placing them in the hands of a single agency would improve enforcement. “By ending the link between food safety and drug and device safety, there would be more focus on protecting the public from unsafe foods,” she said.