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.
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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.