Food Nation

What's So Damn Controversial About Cleaner, Safer Food?

The plant was filthy and infested with vermin, with holes as large as 2 ½ feet in the ceilings leaking water and runoff from the air conditioner units onto the finished product stored below. Records posted on the web by attorney Bill Marler show that executives at Peanut Corporation of America (a.k.a. King Nut and Parnell's Pride) were aware that their product had tested positive for salmonella on 12 different occasions dating as far back as June 2007, but they continued to ship it anyway. Even after people started dying. It wasn't until January 13, 2009 that a press release was issued announcing the voluntary nationwide recall of their peanut butter. Halfway down the document, the following statement appeared, underlined for emphasis: "None of the peanut butter being recalled is sold directly to consumers through retail stores."

But by that time the contaminated peanut butter had made its way into products from more than 200 companies that were being sold directly to consumers through retail stores, primarily in the form of candies and cookies marketed to children and served at nursing homes. In addition, companies like Westco Fruit and Nuts put off recalling potentially contaminated products for weeks, despite repeated requests from the F.D.A. In all, 20,000 Americans were infected with salmonella from peanut butter in 2008 and 2009, half under the age of 16, one-fifth under the age of 5, all thanks to the negligent practices of one plant.

In early 2009 President Obama called upon congress to "upgrade our food safety laws for the 21st century" by enabling the federal government with "the appropriate tools to accomplish its core food safety goals", and S 510: The Food Safety Modernization Act was born. The bill would finally grant the Food and Drug Administration the power to order the recall of contaminated foods and punish those selling products they know are unfit for consumption. We were shocked to learn that they don't currently have this ability, and that all recalls to date have been "voluntary." In addition, the legislature would allow for regulation of food imported from overseas, widespread testing for dangerous pathogens, and a centralized system to improve the agency's ability to trace outbreaks back to their source. Again, shocked. What the hell has the FDA been doing all this time?

The first draft of the bill flew through the House with unanimous support (wow, they can agree on something), but stalled out in the Senate for months until November 30, 2010, when it passed with a vote of 73-25...

...Only to be recalled by the House shortly thereafter because the version of the bill passed last month was deemed unconstitutional as it contained Senate provisions for collecting fees (apparently the Constitution states that any revenue-raising provisions must originate in the House of Representatives). After squeaking through the House on December 9 with a vote of 216-206, the revised legislation is once again stuck on the Senate floor, fueling heated debate.

Arguments from the opposition:

The bill will hurt small farms and independent growers Actually, the smallest farms will be exempt, thanks to an amendment by Montana Senator (and organic farmer) John Tester. Farms not meeting the bill's definition of "a facility" will still be policed under state legislature.

Oklahoma Senator Tom Coburn (R), the most powerful and outspoken opponent of the bill, argued that only 10 or 20 Americans a year die from a food-borne illness, and at $300 million a year, the bill is cost prohibitive. CDC records put the death toll much higher: "We estimate that foodborne diseases cause approximately 76 million illnesses, 325,000 hospitalizations, and 5,000 deaths in the United States each year," a figure equal to the number of Americans killed each year in Iraq and Afghanistan. Worth the expense? We think so.

Will it even make a difference? Our feelings are best summed up in a statement from Josh Ozersky, James Beard Award--winning food writer and the author of The Hamburger: A History: "The existence of even a slightly strengthened FDA is enough to send them a signal, just as even a slothful, doughnut-munching Chief Wiggum is a better deterrent to criminals than no policeman at all." Will it prevent all foodborne illness? No. But if just one life is spared, the legislation becomes worthwhile.

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Lauren Marmaduke
Contact: Lauren Marmaduke