RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—On Tuesday, the Senate passed the Food Safety Modernization Act (S. 510) and finally instituted provisions that will, hopefully, make Salmonella-tainted spinach and poisonous peanut butter things of the past. Though it's intended to make our food system safer, the bill has heightened fears among some that it could do everything from abolishing farmer's markets to making backyard gardens illegal. So let's take a closer look at some of the most widely disseminated myths about the bill.
Myth: The food-safety bill is now law.
Truth: Not yet. The bill won't become law until the House of Representatives either passes S. 510 or reconciles it with the version they passed last year, H.R. 2749. "We will now push hard for the House to pass this version of the bill," says Ferd Hoefner, policy director at the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition. Otherwise, he adds, small-farm and organic advocates may lose ground on some hard-fought battles that went into shaping the Senate bill.
For a live discussion about the Food safety Act, join Rodale.com on Friday via Twitter. Ask questions, share your concerns, and see what the experts have to say.
Myth: The bill will eliminate roadside farm stands, farmer's markets, and community-supported agriculture programs (CSAs).
Truth: Not likely. "Of all the stuff floating around the Internet about this bill, this argument probably had the most validity to it," says Judith McGeary, Esq., founder of the Farm and Ranch Freedom Alliance, a group that represents small, independent farmers and ranchers. McGeary explains that the language of the original Senate bill would have required any food "facility" to comply with burdensome paperwork requirements and produce safety inspections that would have made it nearly impossible for small farms and farmer's markets to do business. Because "facility" was defined so vaguely, it technically could have included farmer's markets, CSAs, and any farmer who turns extra fruit into jams or pies. "As written, it did pose a serious threat," she says. But thanks to the Tester-Hagan Amendment, which was passed with the Senate bill, that's not the case. The amendment protects small farmers and producers who sell directly to consumers, either on their farms or at farmer's markets in their home states or within 275 miles of their farm, and who make under $500,000 in yearly profits from those paperwork and inspection requirements. As a result, CSAs and farmer's markets are no longer threatened. (Be sure to encourage your House representatives to include this protection by voting for the Senate's version or to otherwise maintain it as part of the final House legislation.)
Myth: The bill serves the interests of Monsanto.
Truth: Not exactly, but agribusiness did influence the result. This myth started when Internet bloggers found out that the husband of the congresswoman who initially got the ball rolling on food-safety legislation did contract work for Monsanto. The agribusiness giant responded to that rumor by saying that he no longer had ties to the company, and that Monsanto had no opinions on food-safety legislation(!).
Still, says McGeary, there is a small kernel of truth to this myth. "I don't think this bill was Monsanto-driven, but I do think it was agribusiness-driven." Politicians were under such pressure from consumers to do something about foodborne illnesses that Big Ag companies knew that they would have to deal with some sort of new legislation, she says. So, the industry worked with politicians to get a food-safety bill "that doesn't cause them too many headaches," McGeary says. "The things that are in this bill are things that agribusiness can deal with." Because of that, some serious food-safety problems aren't being addressed, most notably, the concentrated animal-feeding operations that are the primary source of E. coli outbreaks. "Agribusiness didn't want to deal with that, so the bill doesn't deal with that."
Myth: The bill won't do anything about egg contamination.
Truth: Yes it will. Shortly after the bill passed, a few news agencies were reporting that the food-safety bill leaves out eggs. And therefore egg recalls like the massive Wright County egg recall that occurred earlier this year (and added urgency to the bill's passage) could continue to be a problem. But that's not the case. The U.S. food system is regulated by a dozen agencies, as diverse as the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Department of Homeland Security, and each agency oversees specific elements of the food supply. The FDA does have authority to regulate and inspect egg producers, like Wright County, as long as those eggs remain in their shells (like the kinds you buy by the dozen at the grocery store). Once those eggs are taken out of their shells and put into other foods, such as a quiche, they do fall under the purview of the USDA. But as long as the FDA does its job, contaminated eggs will never make it into processed foods.
Myth: The bill makes it illegal to grow your own garden.
Truth: Really? Come on now. When all this talk of a food-safety bill surfaced last year, vague language in the House version of the bill (HR. 875, which never passed) caused full-blown hysteria on the Internet, with some email campaigns claiming the bill, if passed, would ban home gardening. "There were some well-taken concerns, but many were blown out of proportion," says Mark Kastel, cofounder of The Cornucopia Institute, an advocacy group working to protect family farmers. "There is nothing in the current bill that would impact home gardening, whatsoever. This was started by people panicking over broad language in the legislation originally being debated that gives the FDA purview over food safety in general," explains Kastel. "Since no sale is taking place there is nothing to oversee in terms of home gardening."
Patty Lovera, assistant director of Food and Water Watch, a consumer-advocacy group, reiterates the point that the bill would not ban homegrown food, but rather kicks into effect for operations that sell some kind of food. (And, as mentioned, there are provisions in the bill that exempt small-scale farms or processors that sell direct to consumers at farm stands or from the farm.)
"There has been a lot of uproar about food-safety legislation for the last two years, and a lot of the rumors about various pieces of legislation seem to be rooted in bad information that was put out originally about a House bill (H.R. 875) that never even got a hearing.," explains Lovera. "The bill that passed the House last year (H.R. 2749) and the bill that passed the Senate (S. 510) are different from H.R. 875. And most of what circulated about H.R. 875 was not accurate—it even reached the point of getting a Snopes page."
So go ahead and order from winter seed catalogs with full confidence.
Myth: The bill makes it illegal to own or store seeds.
Truth: Keep saving those seeds. If you've seen documentaries like Food, Inc., it's easy to understand how people become uneasy when restrictions are put on seed cleaning and seed saving, something farmers have relied on for centuries. Although the current state of patented genetically engineered seed is putting seed companies out of business and limiting farmers' choices, this particular issue is not addressed in this bill, as far as sustainable farm groups are concerned. "There is no basis in this whatsoever," says Kastel, who notes that one of the original bills debated in the House included a seed cleaning provision, but it never passed.
"The bill does not cover seeds," adds Lovera. "It covers plants that process food and the production of fruits and vegetables."
Myth: It exempts small farms from having to be safe.
Truth: Small farms still need to keep clean. While this bill does provide some exemptions for small farms that meet certain conditions, such as selling more than half of their product through direct sales, selling less than $500,000 of product a year, or selling within a state or within 275 miles of the farm, small operations are still subject to relevant state or local rules on safe food and health codes. "Farms of all sizes will have to act responsibly. Just because smaller, direct marketers will be exempt from regular inspections, fees, and other requirements does not mean that they won't have to still file good handling protocols," says Kastel. "Also, they will still be subject to state law where intra-commerce is regulated."
Myth: This bill completely misses the mark in preventing foodborne illness.
Truth: It's a good start, but there's more work to be done. While there's definitely truth in the fact that much more needs to be done to clean up our industrial food system, some food-safety experts see this bill as one important piece of the puzzle. "There's absolutely more to do to make our food supply safer, and we agree that reining in factory farms is necessary," says Lovera. "But this bill was focused on one piece of the system, the program at FDA. It didn't cover livestock or meat inspection, which are USDA issues."
The Farm Bill, the issue of antitrust enforcement and competition policy at USDA (U.S. Department of Agriculture), and environmental policy covering factory farms are all really important, too, Lovera adds, and we need to keep focusing on those in the future. "The legislation that passed the Senate is a step towards making the FDA do its job better for produce, processed foods, and eggs."
Published on: December 1, 2010