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Food Safety Bill Signed into Law

The Food Safety Modernization Act will give the FDA more power to regulate unsafe foods but continue to protect small-farm rights.

By Lisa Kivirist

January 4, 2011

White House
The Food Safety Modernization Act will give the FDA ability to enforce food-safety standards without inhibiting the productivity of small farms.

Congress’ final days of 2010 served up more than lame duck as a historic piece of legislation passed through the House and the Senate that will guide and influence our farms and food for years to come. After a political roller-coaster ride, the Food Safety Modernization Act was signed into law by President Obama on Jan. 4, 2011.

The Food Safety Modernization Act was first introduced in the House in 2009, partly in response to public outcry over a rash of recalls of basic kitchen staples, such as eggs, spinach and peanut butter. The core of this legislation aims to improve overall food safety by giving the Food and Drug Administration new powers to better monitor and help prevent food-borne disease outbreaks. It increases the FDA’s ability to trace problems to the source and hold those parties responsible.

The Food Safety Modernization Act took nearly two years of beating and criticism, from media-hyped false claims that this law would make home gardening illegal to a valid concern that it could adversely affect small-scale farmers through unnecessary regulations and paperwork. 

The final round of the legislation got caught up in technicalities between the House and Senate versions. After various attempts and political wrangling, the bill officially passed the House on Dec. 21, 2010, with a vote of 215 to 144—it already passed the Senate in November.

“While the Food Safety Modernization Act is far from a perfect piece of legislation, the sustainable-agriculture community worked collaboratively to ensure that the rights of small-scale farmers like myself are fairly represented in this legislation,” explains Liz Henderson, a longtime organic farmer in New York and author of Sharing the Harvest: A Citizen’s Guide to Community Supported Agriculture (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2009). “On one level, the process this legislation went through represents the core of our democratic ideals with various viewpoints coming to the table. The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition food safety working group was persistent, and Ferd Hoefner and his staff in D.C. represented us with great skill and integrity. The small farmer’s voice was not drowned out by the larger, well-funded industrial agriculture entities.”

Fortunately for small-scale farmers, the final legislation limits the FDA’s control of direct-sales farms, farms with their own label, farms with sales less than $500,000, and farms that sell directly in state or within a 275-mile radius. Farms that fall within the exemptions are left to the regulation of states and localities, much in the same way they have been historically.

The legislation does, however, grant the FDA food-recall powers. Before this legislation, the FDA could only suggest recalls once a food has been found tainted. Under this new legislation, the FDA must first give companies a chance to recall unsafe food on their own. If they refuse, then the FDA can issue a recall on its own. The Food Safety Modernization Act represents a fundamental shift in how the FDA approaches food safety from a position of reacting once an illness outbreak has occurred to preventing such contamination in the first place. The next steps will be the long process of the FDA writing the specific rules around these regulations which could take several years.

Next Steps
How the FDA writes and enforces the specific regulations behind the Food Safety Modernization Act will be the next field of opportunity—or contention.

“It's obvious this final legislation is by no means perfect, as no legislation ever is,” says Stacy Miller, executive director of the Farmers Market Coalition, an organization active in advocating for the rights of small-scale farmers. “What it does do is provide a framework, with appropriate limits, on how the FDA can control the food supply in order to ensure its safety, and in that sense does protect ‘the little guy’ by creating scale- and risk-appropriate alternatives. As the baton gets passed to the FDA for translating the legislation into regulation, it will be important for all of us in the sustainable-agriculture community to stay informed, continue discussion and help our farmers take proactive steps to produce safe, healthy food.”

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Food Safety Bill Signed into Law

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Reader Comments
How much more government do we need? I am a business man and a farmer. Whenever, I plan on expanding my business or farm, my first thought is "are there any rules, regulations, fees and/or liscenses that the government has regarding my plans?" This should not have to be my first thought......? I would think it would be better for the governmment to support business/farm expansion? I guess this is the same reason why the government can't seem to figuire out why it keeps running out of money? Too much business regulation equals less business and less tax revenues?
Rich, Steuben, WI
Posted: 1/13/2011 5:45:53 PM
Even after reading, I still don't know how I feel about this...
Georgia, Jacksonville, AR
Posted: 1/12/2011 7:23:09 AM
The FDA can't even properly regulate what they're responsible for now. How is it a good idea to give them more power?
Sandra, Blairsville, GA
Posted: 1/11/2011 5:34:30 PM
With this now being law, I think we can safely expect to see fewer people bother with the farm. Keep regulating people out of business and when we see economic failure result they will blame capitalism. I think capitalism died decades ago. Most people just haven't realized it yet.
John, Kapaa, HI
Posted: 1/10/2011 10:16:54 PM
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