Food Nation

Food Safety Modernization Act Passes, But at What Cost?

Yesterday afternoon, President Obama signed what's being called "one of the most expansive food regulation bills in living memory," the Food Safety Modernization Act (FMSA), effectively creating a new arm of the Food & Drug Administration that will allow the agency to actively attempt to prevent outbreaks of foodborne illnesses instead of simply responding to them.

Although only 5,000 people a year die from outbreaks such as these -- remember the E. Coli-infected spinach that killed five people back in 2006? -- a stunning 76 million people get sick from eating contaminated food each year in the United States. Seventy-six million. Per year.

To this end, the FMSA -- formerly (and more popularly) known as Senate Bill S. 510 -- seeks to actively prevent such outbreaks from occurring, and that begins with holding food companies and manufacturers accountable for any contamination of their products as well as inspecting both domestic and imported food on a regular basis. And, for the first time ever, the FDA will finally be able to force recalls of contaminated food. As Lauren Marmaduke put it last month, "all recalls to date have been voluntary."

Jean Halloran, the director of food policy initiatives at Consumers Union, put it best when she was quoted by Consumer Reports yesterday:

It's a great day for consumers. When common foods like spinach and peanut products have to be pulled from stores because people are dying, clearly, there's a problem. This legislation will go a long way toward making our food safer.

But what of the supposed "dark side" of the food safety bill? The side that its opponents claim will destroy the organic farming movement in the U.S.? The side that claims seed banks will become illegal? The side that has set up agricultural biotech conglomerate Monsanto as the Emperor Palpatine behind this new bill?

Well, it turns out that none of that is really true. While those with their own backyard gardens or hobbies of collecting and planting heirloom seed varieties will most definitely not be impacted by the bill, there was initial concern for small farms, especially those which grow their produce organically.

In response to a national outcry against the bill's potential inclusion of small farms -- especially the types of local, organic farms that supply goods to farmers' markets and restaurants like Haven and t'afia -- Senator Jon Tester, a Democrat from Montana who runs a farm himself, placed an amendment in the bill that exempts these smaller farms in two ways: Farms that sell their products within a 275-mile radius and that make less than $500,000 annually in sales are not expected to comply with the new FSMA.

The greater concern at hand now is the money that it will take to enact the bill itself and how effective it will ultimately be. Estimated at $1.4 billion to implement, Jeff Winkler of the Daily Caller stated yesterday that "opponents of the act say it will prove to be regulation overkill and only assist larger, cash-flush food producers and distributors in edging out smaller and specialty operations."

Food companies will also likely start spending larger sums of money in areas such as records retention and preparation as well as legal counsel to advise them on new standard operating procedures and to advise the companies if or when the FDA wants access to those records or their facilities. Needles to say, this cost will eventually be passed on to the consumer.

It's these rises in costs -- taxes to pay for the FDA and higher food costs at grocery stores and restaurants -- which is ultimately the most disappointing aspect of the bill, especially in today's economy. But is that a cost we're willing to pay for increased safety?

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Katharine Shilcutt