By Ruth Conniff
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It's outrageous that the richest nation on earth can't protect its citizens from lethal infections from tainted food.
So it is a relief to see progress on this most basic consumer protection in the Senate's passage of sweeping food safety legislation this week in the Food Safety Modernization Act.
Despite tens of thousands of outbreaks of illness and thousands of deaths from tainted meat, eggs, spinach, and peanut butter, there were still those who argued that "the free market is working."
Senator Tom Coburn, Republican of Oklahoma, waged a months-long campaign against giving the FDA new powers to regulate food, saying that there was no reason to impose burdensome regulations on food producers.
But for once, Republicans and Democrats were able to agree: Americans should not be subjected to a tainted food supply.
That's a ray of light from a political leadership that is bitterly divided over other basic protections of the citizenry, like expanding access to health care and unemployment benefits, or shoring up a crumbling infrastructure.
But the battle behind the scenes on the food safety bill was not just the ideological divide between pro-corporate, anti-regulatory interests on the one side and consumer advocates on the other. It was also a real test of strength for big agriculture, which tried to use the bill to crush small farmers.
It was a major victory for common sense and a more sustainable, healthier food supply when big ag failed to torpedo an amendment authored by John Tester, Democrat of Montanathat exempts small, local producers who sell less than $500,000 worth of product each year from the new regulations.
Twenty big ag groups wrote a letter vehemently opposing the Tester Amendment and calling it "ideological war against the vast majority of American farmers." The food industry lobbyists added that they were "appalled" by Senator Tester's comments that "small producers are not raising a commodity but are raising food" and that "industrial agriculture takes the people out of the equation."
They argued that exempting small farms would be dangerous because farmers' market produce is just as much a food safety risk as large-scale factory farming.
But anyone who has followed this issue knows that's just not true.
"All of the major food borne illness outbreaks have been caused by products that went through the long supply chains of corporate agribusiness, many emanating from factory-scale farms," the Cornucopia Institute--http://www.cornucopia.org-- explains.
The Institute, which advocates for family farmers and has been producing action alerts on the Food Safety Modernization Act, told its members: "Agribusiness’s real concern about the Tester-Hagan amendment isn’t food safety, but the precedent set by having Congress recognize that small, direct-marketing producers are different, and should be regulated differently, from the large Agribusinesses."
Or, as local food advocate Lisa Jacobson of Wisconsin Homegrown Lunch puts it, "We know there are not little bodies littering the streets because parents fed their children food they got at the local farmers' market."
This is an important point, because big business lobbyists are trying to use the food safety debate, and the rules that will be promulgated at FDA after food safety legislation emerges from Congress, to their advantage.
In the upside-down view of big agriculture, local, organic produce should be subject to irradiation, bleaching, and processing to protect against the kinds of pathogens that crop up as a result of poor sanitary practices that are rife on factory farms. Better yet, the public should be encouraged to eschew farmers' markets and shop at big grocery chains for "safer" food products.
It suits big ag just fine to spread public concern about "unregulated" local farm products, and to give the impression that more highly processed foods are safer. Be on guard against that sort of misinformation as the House takes up the Senate bill and the FDA begins writing new food safety rules.
The food safety problem with big producers is two-fold: factory farms that feature crowding, massive quantities of manure, sick animals, and enormous facilities that are difficult to monitor generate more illness. And, on top of that, the scale of these operations and their penetration of the food supply at a national and even international level mean that the threat is spread far and wide. To fight that threat, the FDA would get additional powers under the new law to impose testing and safe food handling plans, and to recall tainted product immediately, rather than relying on voluntary cooperation of food producers.
Small and local farmers, on the other hand, as Tester explains, are already covered by state and local laws, and have direct relationships with their customers that ensure accountability and traceability. Plus, their facilities are not generally hotbeds of the kinds of illnesses rife on factory farms.
The battle on the issue is not over. But it is a good sign that the Senate has acknowledged that the local food movement is actually helping to ensure a safer food supply, even as big national and international operations spread salmonella and E coli.
Tougher monitoring of those risks, along with support for local farmers, are key ingredients to a safer and healthier food supply.
If you liked this article by Ruth Conniff, the political editor of The Progressive, check out her story "Thanks Local Farmers!"
Follow Ruth Conniff @rconniff on Twitter