Legislation to vastly expand the regulatory powers of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) failed to advance in the Senate last week as proponents had expected. A vote may be rescheduled when Congress reconvenes after the Thanksgiving recess. But if lawmakers are truly vested in optimizing food safety, they will look beyond bureaucratic tinkering and instead eliminate obstacles to innovations in food science as well as market competition. Americans are certainly hungry for more rational policy.
Spanning some150 pages, the Food Safety Modernization Act would authorize the FDA to dictate how farmers grow fruits and vegetables, including rules governing soil, water, hygiene, packing, temperatures, and even what animals may roam which fields and when. It would also increase inspections of food “facilities” and tax them to do so. And, fulfilling the dream of a long line of agency officials, the bill grants the FDA unilateral authority to order recalls.Expanding the agency’s regulatory reach would involve additional spending of $1.4 billion between 2011 and 2015, according to the Congressional Budget Office. The costs to the private sector have not been calculated but would likely reach into the hundreds of millions of dollars annually.
The House approved a companion bill in July 2009. But progress on the Senate bill recently sputtered after advocates of small farms and “local” food producers balked at the regulatory costs—for requirements such as periodic hazard analyses, preventive controls, and voluminous record-keeping—that they claim could wipe out the sector.
The other obstacle to Senate passage last week was the filing of two amendments by Senator Tom Coburn (R–OK): the first to place a moratorium on “earmarks,” and the second a substitute for the Food Safety Modernization Act.
To the rescue came Senator Jon Tester (D–MT), who proposed an exemption based on farm revenues and local sales radius. After a bit of infighting among the small farm lobbyists, an agreement has reportedly been reached with Senate leadership to exempt farmers who generate less than $500,000 a year in revenue and sell directly to consumers, restaurants, or grocery stores within 275 miles of their farms. However, the United Fresh Produce Association and some 20 other agriculture groups that previously backed the legislation have objected to the exemption and may pull their support.
It’s entirely understandable that small farmers and food producers would want to avoid greater regulatory costs and government encroachment. In reality, there’s no rationale for imposing the regulations on any food facility of any size. The incident rates of food-borne illness have actually been declining for more than a decade, in spite of higher consumption of the raw foods that are most often associated with outbreaks of food-borne illness.
Nor will meaningful improvements in food safety come from intermittent visits by regulators or their scrutiny of farmers’ paperwork. History has repeatedly shown that science and technology have delivered the greatest advances in food safety. Pasteurization, water disinfection, and retort canning, for example, freed consumers from food transmission of botulism, typhoid fever, tuberculosis, and cholera. And it was the food industry, not regulators, that first standardized quality grading and pathogen elimination processes. More recently, irradiation and bioengineering have also helped to destroy pathogens and extend product shelf-life. Were it not for alarmist opposition to both, consumer acceptance would likely be greater—bringing with it broader health benefits.
Market forces such as competition, brand-name value, monitoring by financial markets and insurers, and common law are also powerful drivers of food safety. There are bad actors in every pursuit, of course, but considering the sheer size of the market, Americans enjoy a remarkably safe food system.
The legislation also fails to address one of the most problematic aspects of current food regulation: the dizzying overlap between the FDA and the U.S. Department of Agriculture—both of which oversee thousands of domestic food-processing facilities. And to exacerbate matters, the Senate bill requires the Environmental Protection Agency to “participate” in food safety activities—a provision that most assuredly won’t improve regulatory efficiency.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D–NV) is intending to call a vote on the measure after Congress returns from the Thanksgiving recess. But there is no food safety crisis. Unfortunately, though, the threat of costly and unwarranted regulation only continues to climb.