Monday, September 13, 2010

US Senate Bill S 510 - Food. Safety For Whom?

We have an old family recipe that directs the cook to use a "slow fire" when preparing the ingredients.

I can only picture my great grandmother starting her work by taking a stick of kindling and warming the back-end of the reluctant child who didn't fetch enough fire wood for her to make her recipe on the wood stove.

I can now take the same recipe to my electric stove and have perfect control over heat, time, sanitation and preparation while my reluctant child watches TV and asks for Kraft Dinner. And I can do both at the same time.

It was just a few generations ago that most of my family farmed in New England and the Mid Western States. Food was the center of farm life.  Knowing how to grow, prepare and preserve the bounty of the farm was the business of each family - not the government or private enterprise.

Now we live in a world where huge farms in Wisconsin, North Dakota, Alberta, Uruguay and Brazil can contribute their produce to the same pound of ground beef processed and packaged for sale by a nameless group of sub-contracting slaughter houses, processors, packagers and shippers. Our food passes from hand to hand in country after country under conditions we hope are safe at each step.

But we don't really know.

And that's what makes it so disturbing when one company can sell and distribute a problem to 20 million people and then say, "Sorry".  Meanwhile, hundreds of small local producers and packers are forced out.      

When so much of our food comes from people and places we can't see and don't know on a scale we can't comprehend we need increased regulations, inspection and safety standards to keep our global food supply safe. Or we need more local alternatives, supported by our communities that must answer directly to neighborhood  consumers, their farmers and their concerns. But clearly there are forces opposed to this. 

So the question is, where does your concern about food safety really center? Is it your concern to regulate the nameless and invisible stops on the international food chain? Or should new regulations be made to equate your neighbors and individual local producers, with an international giant?

That is what is up for debate in US Senate Bill S 510.  And you can read all about it here:

I am not one to rail against conventional farms.  We need all of our farmers in North America to have healthy, successful businesses. I simply believe we have to be able to decide for ourselves what food choices we want.  All of us have a human right, based on 10,000 years of human agriculture, to grow and consume natural food.  But a recent FDA decision in the US declared that manufacturers using Genetically Modified Organisms would not be required to identify their contents. And now a company here in Canada is trying to market a genetically modified fish clone as food.  That might be fine, but I want my community to have an open, organic choice. Policy that would make it legal to sell unlabeled clones as food, but illegal to sell heirloom tomatoes threatens more than the integrity of a single species.       

It seems to me that the food safety issue and the proposed regulation as presented here is designed to provide safety for the industrial food marketer/manufacturers at the expense of independent farmers across North America.  And before you suspect my motivations, please consider that I already pay more and produce more documentation for the organic certification of my farm than would be required of small producers under the proposed US law.  
The time may come when the producers of synthetic food products will demand restrictions on the producers of natural food.  Conventional growers need to see this for the threat it is and join in support of independent and organic farmers in opposition to this legislation.  The time is now.


Michael said...

Actually, this bill specifically protects organic farmers.

It instructs the FDA to "not include any requirements that conflict with or duplicate the requirements of the national organic program established under the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990...".

Here is a Senate staff summary of the bill's effects on small farms and organics:

Mark & Sally said...

hear hear!!!

John Quimby said...

Thanks Michael -
I particularly liked:
"Protections for Farmers Markets, Cottage Industries and Direct Farm-to-Market Sales
Small entities that produce food for their own consumption or market the majority of their food directly to consumers or restaurants are not subject to registration or new recordkeeping requirements under S. 510. This includes food sold
through farmers’ markets, bake sales, public events and organizational fundraisers."

But what the link doesn't define is the cutoff limit - which is described as "discretionary". So is it acres in production? Gross sales?

It reads to me as though selling produce to another entity for processing would not be exempted.

So if I sell cucumbers to a lady who bottles pickles for sale, at some point I will be required to create a food ID document.

On the other hand if cucumbers were developed with spliced frog genes - no additional labeling would be required on the pickle jar since FDA would already have approved it.

That just doesn't seem right to me.

Michael said...

I'm with you there.

As for the cutoff.. without going back to the bill to quote, the cutoffs will in my recollection be based on a combination of sales, volume sold, acres, number of employees, and (most important to me) risk. So, based on all that, I'd be surprised if cucumbers-to-pickles was considered a priority at all. I believe what you would see is a process like that being exempted unless it occurred on a large-scale, where a large number of employees might be handling the food and therefore potentially contaminating a product that will sell in high volume and effect a lot of consumers.

Unfortunately, this bill doesn't address all the problems with the regulation of our food system. I wish it did.

Some want to say nothing short of reworking the whole system in one swoop is satisfactory.. I'm young, but I think I'm old enough to know that that idea isn't realistic, nor would it be safe.

Good luck with your farm. I hope the weather and the powers that be treat you well.. and thanks for farming.

P.s.- Here is a link to the latest (8/20/10) version of S. 510.

John Quimby said...

Good thoughts Michael.
Thanks for adding your comments.
And thanks for the links.

Please keep your eye on the blog and "drop by" when you can.