Many independent food producers breathed a sigh of relief this week when Congress finally passed the contentious FDA Food Safety Modernization Act with an amendment exempting small enterprises that sell directly to consumers, retailers, or restaurants in the same state or within a 275-mile radius. Farmers and others had feared that, if they were forced to comply, the new regulations would bankrupt them.
The legislation, which President Obama is expected to sign by Christmas, brings the most significant change to federal food safety oversight in more than 70 years. The law will give the FDA the authority to order recalls of tainted food, rather than just request them. It also sets stricter parameters for inspections and requires manufacturers to demonstrate that they are taking steps to prevent hazards on an ongoing basis.
“This legislation will work to prevent food contamination before it occurs, steering away from our current focus on responding after an outbreak,” Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Tuesday after the House vote. “It improves our ability to detect and respond to food-borne illness, increases the number of inspections the FDA must conduct, and, for the first time, requires importers of foreign food to verify that products grown and processed overseas meet U.S. safety standards.”
Consumer advocates and public-health experts are hopeful that new rules will reduce the bacterial contamination that’s prompted recalls of everything from beef and eggs to spinach and peanut butter. The National Institutes of Health estimates that currently 76 million Americans get sick every year from food-borne diseases — and 5,000 die.
“We’re really happy about it,” Creg Istre, who owns a farm in Texas that includes a garden and livestock, told the Abilene Reporter-News. “We do well enough to supply ourselves and a few friends…. The fewer hoops we have to jump through, the better.”
But some proponents of the locavore movement believe the law is fundamentally flawed and harmful to small farmers, especially those who produce raw milk. (Locavores eat natural, locally produced foods whenever possible.) The Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund, which lobbied against the act, argues that the new rules will “expand the FDA’s involvement in regulating food in intrastate commerce, further interfering with local communities.”
Ami Gadhia, policy counsel for the Consumers Union, told the Los Angeles Times that the overhaul will be good for business because “it’s going to provide a measure of security and certainty that there’s a system in place and bad actors will be weeded out. It’s going to save business costly recalls.” The act is also designed to minimize the financial impact on smaller food producers, the Times reported. Producers who make less than $500,000 per year in sales will continue to be overseen by local and state food safety and health agencies.