RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—No one can really argue that we have a major food-safety problem in this country. Recalls due to pathogenic contamination have been big news, and unfortunately, have sometimes even been fatal. Sources working closely with members of Congress in Washington, DC, say the Food Safety Modernization Act (S. 510 in the Senate and H.R. 875 in the House), landmark food-safety legislation, is "changing by the minute." The vote has been postponed several times as health care and financial reform took precedence during the last few months, but as it stands, Congress could vote as early as next week. The problem is, pending laws don't seem to really get to the heart of food-safety problems—industrial food production.
THE DETAILS: On a hopeful note, Christine Bushway, executive director of the Organic Trade Association, says that many lawmakers are trying to craft the new rules in a way that will not put organic farmers out of business. The legislation will likely include mandates for stricter one-up, one-down traceability. In other words, "where did I get this ingredient, and where did it go to," explains Bushway, who notes that the organic program already requires stringent record keeping and traceability. Which means smaller organic growers might have to duplicate inspection and record-keeping efforts—tasks that aren't a problem for multinational food companies, but could be too much for smaller operations to handle. "Many local, organic, sustainable growers are literally the safest providers of food in our country," says Mark Kastel, codirector of The Cornucopia Institute, an advocacy group supporting sustainable family farmers. "It would be a travesty to make it harder or impossible for them to earn a living."
Another frightening concept for local, organic food supporters is the fact that the government is considering expanding the California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement to a national level. The 2006 spinach E. coli outbreak (which also affected organic spinach) prompted this "voluntary" agreement that stipulates farmers cut down trees and level wildlife corridors on their farms because, the theory goes, wildlife feces caused the outbreak. (So far, researchers have not been able to produce any evidence that this is true.) Since large wholesalers won't buy from farmers who don't agree, farmers are in effect forced to remove natural areas from their farms to stay in business. Taking out these wildlife buffers, which have been used for centuries in farming to prevent soil erosion and flooding, eliminates sanctuaries for beneficial birds and insects that control pest problems naturally on organic farms.