The Food Safety Bill Is Cause for Concern, Not Panic

Opponents to The Food Safety Modernization Act of 2009 worry that it would further restrict small growers.©

Over the past several weeks, blog posts and alternative media sites were riddled with panic over H.R. 875, the new bill introduced in the House over food safety regulations. The Food Safety Modernization Act of 2009 aims to "establish the Food Safety Administration within the Department of Health and Human Services to protect health by preventing food-borne illness" and ensure the safety of food products through more stringent regulation guidelines. No one would argue that improving the food safety standards in the U.S. is a negative move. It’s the bill’s vague language that causes concern among supporters of organic and biodynamic farming—and sparks the doomsday scenarios reflected in commentaries on the bill.

One article that flooded foodies" e-mail boxes was the piece "Monsanto’s dream bill, H.R. 875" by Lynn Cohen-Cole. Cole expresses concern over the power and influence of agricultural giants, especially Monsanto. She writes, "The corporations want the land, they want more intensive industrialization, they want the end of normal animals so they can substitute patented genetically engineered ones they own, they want the end of normal seeds and thus of seed banking by farmers or individuals. They want control over all seeds, animals, water, and land."

However, shortly after the release of Cohen-Cole’s article, Monsanto was quick to respond to the inaccuracies in the story. Yes, the bill was introduced by Democratic Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro (CT-3), whose husband, Stanley Greenberg, worked for the food giant more than 10 years ago through contract work. But according to a recent Monsanto blog post, Greenberg currently holds no ties to the company, and it claims it has no position on the bill.

Grist contributor Tom Philpott also found that Cohen-Cole’s work presented dramatic what-if situations not found in the text of the bill: "And "24 hours of GPS tracking of … animals"? Not in there. "Warrentless government entry" to farms? Can’t find it."

Raw milk producers would face additional red tape under H.R. 875.©

So why the hysteria over H.R. 875?

It’s really a fight about government control. The loose terms and definitions of what H.R. 875 would actually do—enact more stringent and much-needed safety regulations—left room for organic and biodynamic growers to become fearful of government intervention. Section 206 of the bill, which defines a "food production facility," is so ambiguous that individuals beyond large farms (i.e. backyard gardeners) could be penalized and subject to review by the government.

After a flood of inquiries by concerned individuals, the Organic Consumers Association (OCA) responded to concerns: "We cannot support a "food safety" bill unless it provides protection or exemptions for organic and farm-to-consumer producers and cracks down on the real corporate criminals who are tampering with and polluting our nation’s food supply," they said in a statement.

H.R. 875 cannot survive in its current state nor is it ever likely to gain widespread support. If the Bush administration showed Americans anything, it was that big business had the upper hand in this country, especially multi-billion dollar produce, dairy and meat agribusinesses. It is clear that alternative growers will not tolerate four more years of being ignored and under-funded by the government.

In light of the salmonella outbreaks in spinach and peanut butter and the presence of mercury in high fructose corn syrup, any discussion that leads toward greater safety in food production and distribution is a positive first step. Factory farms and vast monocultures have proven ineffective; certainly they yield massive amounts of food but at a significant cost to land, animals and humans. Poor regulation over the use of pesticides and the increased likelihood of animals susceptible to disease only further thwarts the confidence of Americans in the national and imported food supply.

The flaws of H.R. 875 are clear: The generic and utilitarian model is not appropriate or fair to apply to the wide range of farms in this country. Small farms already susceptible to government intervention, especially raw dairy producers, only face increased red tape under the bill. The practice and support of organic and biodynamic farming has come too far in this country to give up easily in a fight. Proponents of the local, Slow Food and organic food movements should continue to vocalize their opposition to the current food system model, encouraging the improvement of domestic products and vast support for a transition to organic practices.

ALEXANDRA GROSS is an editorial intern at E.