Thursday, April 09, 2009

And your proof is?...

The furor over the Food Safety Modernization Act is rapidly devolving to another "big-government is coming" debate which strikes me as a clever way for opponents to avoid the real issue: making food safer.  One large faction in a permanent state of outrage is somewhat strangely, the "small food" group, who wail about the likely end of gardens and farmer's markets.

The panics over salmonella, E. Coli and unsafe foodstuffs from China have heightened the prospects that Congress will enact a measure known as H.R. 875, the “Food Safety Modernization Act of 2009″. Should the measure in its current form become law, “food establishments”, which to quote Patrick at Popehat “means anyone selling or storing food of any type for transmission to third parties via the act of commerce”*, will have to register with a new federal regulatory agency, submit to federal inspections, and, perhaps most significant, keep “copious records of sales and shipment by lot and label”. Penalties for infractions will be very, very steep.
What could possibly go wrong?
The answer, it seems, is “plenty”. Patrick, and the other writers linked just above, warn that the law may drive out of business local farmers and artisanal, small-scale producers of berries, herbs, cheese, and countless other wares, even when there is in fact nothing unsafe in their methods of production. Many informal makers of ethnically or culturally distinctive food items will go off-books or simply fall by the wayside, overwhelmed by the reporting and batch-tracking paperwork. Many foreign producers who ship in less-than-mass quantities will give up on the U.S. market rather than try to comply with challenging standards that differ drastically from those imposed by European markets or their own countries of origin, which in turn will mean that many interesting and safe specialty foods will simply no longer be available for purchase, at least legally. [My emphasis][More]

The highlighted phrase contains essentially the entirety of their counter argument, which boils down to this: because we say so (and we're cute).  There is no significant body of evidence showing farmer-direct sales are less risky than industrial produce, nor, as we saw with peanuts, can we say the organic label speaks to any assurance of safety.  Plus we all should have a few suspicions where those farmer-market veggies come from.

In short, opponenents of FSMA (HR875) are simply demanding we accept their word about, well, everything they say.  

I'd just as soon all food products sold meet the same standards.  If it's too hard for small producers the comply, then by all means kill the legislation - in its entirety.  The problem here is the body politic will have to make a reasoned determination about how much food contamination we will accept.  If it is zero, then FMSA is the required response by government.

A far better standard, in my opinion, would be along the ALARA principle from the nuclear power industry (as low as reasonably achievable).  This idea doesn't have a prayer, and partly because small growers point to every recall as proof industrial ag is killing consumers. 

Welcome to the club.  What they forget that while total cases for industrial problems are huge, the per volume incidence of contamination is probably not any different for their products.  At a minimum, we don't know.  FMSA will fill that void with some hard data, and maybe some fear is showing about how that data might trend.

Another possibility is the concern in the litigation industry that certified procedures will allow industrial producers some relief from litigation over food contamination.  Being able to demonstrate scupulous adherence to a uniform food safety regimine would be powerful legal defense against over-the-top jury awards and etheir equally enormous lawyer fees. In fairness, from the first link above, a complicated regulation might also be good for the litigation business, just like complicated financial regulation. At any rate, attorneys have several dogs in this fight.

All across the food industry, from NAIS to FSMA a strong backlash, fueled by rhetoric from pseudo-libertarians is seeking to counter the growing tide of consumer concern about food safety. Their view of the trade-off is certainly valid, but they offer little more than self-defined "expertise" to exempt their commerce from any other approach to improving food safety.

1 comment:

Joe said...

John,
As a dairy farmer, whether I have 1 cow or 1000, I have to meet FDA standards. Seem to me the dairy industry is ahead of the curve on this one.
Joe