Dangerous safety? I don’t think so.

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Here’s my favorite provision of S-510, otherwise known as the Food Safety Modernization Act, and just approved unanimously by the Senate Sunday: it allows the FDA to recall foods linked to illness. We would no longer have to depend on the kindness of corporations to do the right thing and recall their contaminated products. There would also be more inspections of big food-processing facilities so that maybe there’d be less contaminated product sent out in the first place. This is the first time that the FDA’s food-safety powers have been updated since the 1930s, and it’s about time.

If there’s anybody out there who thinks that large corporate entities are eager to police themselves even if it does get in the way of their bottom line, I have acres of poisoned property to sell you in Niagara Falls.  For more recent examples, we need only look to Westco, who last year continued to ship peanut butter weeks after thousands of people nationwide were already sick from the products. Or the feebly apologetic Iowa mega-farmer who was implicated in last summer’s salmonella epidemic, after he’d been paying millions in violation fines for years. That was cheaper for him than cleaning up his truly horrific operation.

While I have seen a number of hysterical calls to action by alarmist big-gumint libertarian types as well as more reasoned complaints by those who feel the regulations would hamper the ability of small farms to succeed, I have also been looking at this bill and all that’s been written about it*—and I just don’t see what all the yelling is about. There are a number of exemptions and clarifications, applying to “very small businesses,” “limited annual monetary value of sales,” and facilities with “qualified end users.” Farmers who sell most of their harvest directly to restaurants, food co-ops, farm stands, and farmers’ markets wouldn’t have to abide by the regulations in the legislation (so Michele’s kids’ farm stand is safe). It seems obvious this legislation is aimed at big operations. Maybe the larger small farms will have a few more forms to fill out.

The bill also contains provisions for imported food. Which is fine with me; I am no more eager to ingest Central American pathogens than I am those of the domestic variety.

Oh, and Glenn Beck is worried that the legislation is a secret government stratagem designed to attack the meat industry, which the bill does not affect, as more consumers turn to their regulated vegetables. Ha. Where do you even begin with something that dumb?

On the other hand, Michael Pollan says it’s “the right thing to do.” Maybe he’d also say that the answer is for everyone to grow their own food. But that’s not our reality, and it isn’t likely to be any time soon.

I do not obsess about what’s on my plate or where it came from. I don’t even grow vegetables. (Those of you who have seen my property know why.) But if Pollan said that because he believes a family should be able to buy a carton of eggs or a head of lettuce without their next stop being the emergency room, than I’m with him.

*I read what I could of the bill itself and also referred to interpretations found in the NYTimes, the Washington Post, The Philadelphia Inquirer, the Christian Science Monitor, and others. As Chris notes below, the bill was amended to address small farm concerns. But before that and after that, there was and is a ton of disinformation about the bill being passed around the interwebs.

Posted by

Elizabeth Licata
on December 21, 2010 at 5:00 am, in the category Eat This, Ministry of Controversy.


  1. It is my understanding that all those exemptions for small farmers were added to the bill after the “hysterical calls to action by alarmist big-gumint types” from across the political spectrum.

  2. Thanks for this post, Elizabeth. I have not been sure what to think of this bill, having read much of the “pro” and “anti” It is hard to know what to think but overall, this seems to be an improvement. Let’s hope so!

  3. Months ago, my alarmist and generally ill-informed neighbor came frantically to tell me that “the government” was trying to take away our right to grow vegetables. I asked him to show me the bill saying that before I would get excited… and I let it drop. Several more times he came to me letting me know it was true, but now he had linked Monsanto and ADM in with the bill. Still he offered no proof.

  4. I have been inspected by the FDA for the last 3 years in my less-than-5000 case winery. So far the inspections are free, but I don’t expect it to remain that way. They are pretty simple inspections, but annoying, as they come unannounced, and no matter what job I am in the middle of doing, I have to stop and give them my time. They also want to know things that seem pretty irrelevant, like do I have a self-closing bathroom door, and do I have sleeves on my flourescent lights, etc. I also get inspected by the OR Dept of Agriculture, for which I pay $500 per year, and which duplicates the FDA inspection (one year, FDA “borrowed” the ODA inspector and she got to ask questions for both agencies).

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