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
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.

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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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