Monday, November 29, 2010

Food Safety Day: S. 510

At around 4:00pm (EST) today, the Senate will resume talks about S. 510, more commonly known as The FDA Food Safety Modernization Act. It seems, upon hearing about this bill and what it aims to do, that it should get a very simple thumbs-up. I do not think I am speaking out of turn if I say that we can all agree that something is amiss in food safety regulation in the United States and that whatever litmus test has been used in the past by the FDA is simply not cutting the mustard anymore - it needs modernization. However, the feverish debate over the passage of this bill shows that this may not be as cut and dry as it should be. Those who are in favor of the bill seem to take a stance of, "If this is the best we can get for now, I'll take it," and those who oppose are up in arms about the dramatic effects it will have on small and local farms, saying things like, "This is the end of food as we know it."

From my perspective, at the center of the debate are two virtues that always find themselves amidst all types of turmoil of the human condition: Trust and Money. One is so subjective and personal and the other, well... selective and often discriminatory.


Let me begin with what has been often claimed to be the root of all evil: money. Whether you are talking about big agri-businesses or small local farms, one issue at the center of the debate is cost.
  • How much will it cost those subject to this regulation to bring their business up to snuff with the new hoop they have to jump through? 
  • Will they have to redesign their facilities, hire more staff or purchase different products in their production? 
Obviously, this is something that is going to be a larger burden on a smaller business. Many farmers opt not to be "certified organic" simply because of the cost, even though their product is just as organic as one with the label. This is a choice farmers knowingly make and hope that customers will understand. In terms of an FDA regulation, these same farmers will not be able to opt out of add on costs and hope for understanding... they do it or they are out of business. The evil side of money: IF they do it, they may STILL go out of business due to expense. 


The other 3,000 pound tomato in the room is trust.
  • Who is the FDA?
  • Will the FDA play buddy-buddy with old big-business pals?
  • Has this bill been designed with loopholes for the big businesses to squeeze through in the guise of small business support?
Over the years, I have learned that many of the people behind the acronym FDA were folks who seemed to have a major conflict of interest in their past. Whether they were former employees, current shareholders or just taking a sabbatical from a food industry giant, it seemed once their past was unveiled my suspicion was engaged. So I understand the lack of trust in the FDA. I decided to see if that writing was still on the wall. Upon checking out the current organization of the FDA (this is really a light-handed investigation) I decided to focus on two positions: Director of Food Safety & Nutrition, and the current Commissioner.

Michael M. Landa, J.D., Acting Director of Food Safety & Nutrition Mr. Landa has spent at least the last ten years in the FDA, and many of them focusing on food safety. It seems as though he was a lawyer before that time. I have not been able to find any specific information on the work he did as a lawyer, but on his FDA profile page it does say that he spent at least some of that time as a council for them.

Margaret A. Hamburg, M.D., Commissioner of Food & Drugs Could I biased because she spent some time here in New York? Sure. Anyway, I can't find too much to scrutinize here. She's young and she has a background in medicine. This is helpful for the "drugs" end of the title and when there are outbreaks, but hopefully she is gaining all types of on the job food experience. She also worked in bioterrorism and seems to be quite a go-getter. The fact of the matter is, I don't see any history with any big food businesses!

I am sure there are a ton of other players in the game here. I don't know enough about the food politics to even know what to worry about in terms of who could be the problem, but I feel a little bit better knowing that the coaches of this team weren't trained in some other sport.

As for the loopholes in the bill... well, the real problem is I don't know how one could fix that. It seems as though the amendment to the bill has allowed for some leeway for smaller farms, so one issue being raised is: What's to stop a bigger farm from breaking itself into smaller farms just to take advantage? I don't know - vigilance from the regulators? Educated consumers?  I mean if we make up an amendment for every single "what if" then we will never get passed go on this one.

It is not perfect. I don't think it is horrible either. I think the  new amendment with considerations for the smaller businesses was needed. I think this is a step in the right direction... I hope.

The REAL Problem 
Let's think about it this way. Every single business - big, small, local, whatever - that is in operation right now has some way of making their ends meet (that's why they are in business right now). They each have a system that is working for them to hopefully be making a profit of sorts. Some of those businesses are operating in a way that you or I may completely agree with and some may not - we can agree on that. However, where we may disagree is on which practices are "right" and which are "wrong."

This bill is trying not to determine what is "right" or "wrong," but instead what is safe, but they have to find a way to regulate it. The real problem is uniform measurement/regulation/assessment. I see this problem in education all the time: someone has to decide what to asses, how to asses it and then determine what the consequences are. It is an impossible task to get all parties to agree on what is fair. The food industry is as diverse as the United States' student population and every group has their advocates. I understand this disagreement, but isn't it obvious that our current assessment is failing us?

I think I am leaning toward the "yays", hoping that those farmers in my Farmers Market can make it through, especially those who have bakeries on their premises. However, I will be watching this debate... perhaps amidst the furious comments, name calling and dismissal of opposing opinions a diamond in the rough, a person with the perfect solution will emerge!

Some Further Reading About S. 510 (make sure to check out the comments to feel the full fervor of the debate!):

Are you interested in taking action when it comes to your food? If so, here is some further reading for you!
UPDATE: Food Safety Bill Passes Senate

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