An idyllic Minnesota organic family farm—that sells tainted milk.
Photo: Dan Browning, Minneapolis Star Tribune startribune.com
On Tuesday, the U.S. Senate passed the nation’s first food safety overhaul in 70 years. While the bill was hailed as representing major reform, closer examination reveals yet another case of much ballyhooed reform that contains less than meets the eye. A Minnesota Public Radio interview conducted by Cathy Wurzer with Dr. Michael Osterholm, of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, highlighted some of these issues. Curiously, his points are absent in other media coverage of the bill.
Dr. Michael Osterholm with Oprah
Dr. Osterholm’s resume includes stints as head of the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH), where he made the department a national leader in infectious disease epidemiology with notable achievements in food-borne disease outbreaks. He served as interim head of the U.S. Center for Disease Control. It was the MDH that two years ago tracked a massive Salmonella outbreak to King Nut Peanut Butter and PCA peanut paste, a compound found in thousands of foods and other products.
Osterholm believes that, flawed as it is, Senate Bill S.510 – the Food Safety Modernization Act, will not be improved in conference committee, but instead the House will approve the Senate version as is. This has been reported by the New York Times as well. The reason given is the short window of time before the end of the lame-duck session of Congress. Nonetheless, wholesale House adoption of the Senate bill represents a badly compromised outcome from Osterholm’s point of view, particularly because the Senate bill, unlike the House bill, provides no funding mechanism for expanded FDA operations.
Osterholm played down the value of the FDA gaining the power to order a recall, noting that in his experience no food producer confronted with the facts ever refused to issue a recall on its own.
Small Farm Exemption
What Osterholm sees as a much larger problem is the exemption of farms selling less than $500,000 worth of product a year. He asserts that is still a lot of product per farm. What’s more, it accounts for a significant percentage of the food found on grocery store shelves. In fact, he asserted, most food comes from small providers. And he says they bear a significant share of responsibility for food-borne disease:
“Last year, only 5% of all the outbreaks of salmonella in this country could be traced back to specific large providers of food—what is often called the factory farm.”
While there are many reasons to buy local and buy small, food safety isn’t automatically one of them. As Osterholm put it:
“There is a mistaken belief that somehow if you buy something locally, if you buy something from a smaller company, or if it’s organic, that it’s safer; and there’s absolutely no data to support that. In fact, the data are just the opposite. They support that these are very important parts of the food-borne disease problem in this country.”
In Minnesota, a May 2010 controversy over E. coli contamination of raw milk highlighted the point Osterholm raised. The Michael Hartmann farm in Gibbon, Minnesota was selling organic, raw milk to co-ops under the Minnesota Organic Milk or “M.O.M.s” brand. It was, however, also making them sick—included a toddler who had to be hospitalized. The state enjoined the farm from selling tainted milk, but this was just a lucky find as compared to the thousands of producers who sell to conglomerates who mix their products into vast product networks, just as PCA peanut paste was widely distributed.
The food safety bill represents an all or nothing approach to small farms. That is a mistake. While the systemic food safety plans required of factory farms may be overkill for the small farms, intermediate interventions could do much to improve food safety.
Some in the Senate felt that state laws would suffice for small producers. But few states have health departments like Minnesota’s. If you find yourself sick in a “farm-friendly” state like, okay, Oklahoma, you could well be on your own. Take that point up with Oklahoma Senator Tom Coburn (R), who demagogued this debate big-time.
Here’s some of what the bill does, as summarized by CNN:
- Food producers would be required to develop written food safety plans, accessible by the government in case of emergency. These would include hazard analysis and a plan for implementing corrective measures.
- The Secretary of Health and Human Services would be required to create a food tracing system that would streamline the process of finding the source of contamination, should an outbreak occur.
- Importers would be required to verify the safety of all imported foods to make sure it's in accordance with U.S. food safety guidelines.
If you read the legislative summary of the bill, which you can here, it seems long on paperwork and low on inspections. Yet, the New York Times reports, “The legislation greatly increases the number of inspections the FDA must conduct of food processing plants, with an emphasis on foods that are considered most high-risk.” As reassuring as that sounds, I suspect the baseline inspection rate was near zero.
What Came First, the E. coli or the Egg?
With more than a dozen agencies involved in food regulation, and hundreds of millions of dollars in small-farm product that escapes regulation under the new bill, loopholes abound. And it doesn’t even cover meat. The U.S. Department of Agriculture regulates poultry and meat, two of the biggest categories related to food-borne disease. The USDA is caught in an irresolvable conflict of interest with its dual mission of promoting and regulating protein producers. The system is so broken that egg safety regulation falls into a no-man’s land between the FDA and the USDA whereby, according to Slate, “the FDA has been responsible for monitoring eggs after they have been processed and the USDA before.” Go figure.
The system is so arcane, and broken, that the FDA regulates eggs in their shells, while the USDA regulates de-shelled eggs used for mass-scale food processing. But here’s the kicker, again according to Slate, “Bacteria have crept into this no-man's bureaucratic land, infecting live chickens and then coating the surface of the eggs they produce.”
Follow the Money…Oh, Wait, There is no Money
The two largest differences between the House and Senate versions of the bill refer to the exemption for small farms and the lack of a funding mechanism in the Senate bill. The House bill would have charged producers a fee to fund more frequent inspections, for example. This “oversight” allows the upper house to claim credit for something it has yet to deliver—workable regulation.
The New York Times reported, “The measure requires the FDA to inspect “high risk” producers only once every three years.” With guidelines that loose, expect little in the way of meaningful change. Inspection rates of every six months or, at minimum, once a year, would be more appropriate for this group.
Senator Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, said of the bill, “This legislation means that parents who tell their kids to eat their spinach can be assured that it won’t make them sick.”
Not so fast, Tom. With small-farm loopholes, zero funding, and a four-year lag time for some of the provisions to kick in, I would say go easy on the guarantees.
Perhaps it would be prudent to listen instead to Michael Osterholm. “There are many very important issues in the food safety bill that are being left behind on the Congressional floor,” he concluded.
UPDATE: 2:30 p.m. EST 12/2/10
The Senate bill has been found to be out of compliance with the rule that the House of Representatives must initiate legislation that raises revenue. Though the bill does not provide comprehensive funding for the initiative, it does authorize the FDA to assess fines or fees on producers of food imports and food producers "who have recalls or fail inspections," according to news services. Though it hardly seems material, the clause apparently runs afoul of legislative protocol. This is known as the "blue slip" problem, for the method by which the House informs the Senate that it has overstepped House prerogatives. One solution might be to have the House reintroduce the Senate bill as its own, and then pass it back to the Senate. However, the clock is ticking on the lame duck session and Senate Republicans may not be willing to go along with another vote. It is not known if the House can strike the offending clause without triggering a conference committee, a move for which there does not seem to be sufficient time remaining in the session.