Food Safety Bills Moving Through Congress

With all our attention diverted to the government’s attempted takeover of the half of US health care that isn’t already nationalized, the attempted destruction of our economy by crippling fossil fuel use, and the highly un-stimulating stimulus plan, you could be forgiven for not noticing that Congress is also trying to re-formulate America’s food safety regulations.  The leading proposal is Rep. John Dingell’s (D-Mich.) H.R. 2749, the Food Safety Enhancement Act of 2009.  It’s got plenty of support from both sides of the political aisle, and it likely will be passed into law before Thanksgiving, the most important food day of the years for Americans.

On their faces, the requirements of the bill don’t appear to be especially onerous.  Mainly, it includes things like enhanced power for FDA to order food recalls; a requirement that FDA inspect food production facilities more frequently than it now does; a requirement that FDA issue performance standards to minimize foodborne contaminants; and a requirement that food production facilities (which will now include farms, not just packaging plants and slaughterhouses) establish food safety plans and implement preventative controls that make it harder for contaminants to enter the system and easier to spot them if they do. There have been some kooky attempts to make these proposals seem much worse than they really are.  But the fact of the matter is that the proposals really are pretty bad. The problem is that, while US agriculture is intensifying rapidly (and there’s nothing inherently wrong with that), most “food production facilities” in the country are still fairly small operations and run on shoestring budgets. Many of them simply will not be able to afford these new bureaucratic hassles and paperwork costs.  So, the next time you hear some bleeding heart member of Congress lament the decline of the small farmer, you can reply that Washington has done more than its fair share of harm to America’s small farmers.

More importantly, it is not reasonably possible to eliminate every last bit of contamination from our food supply.  Food is grown outside — in dirt.  And dirt is … well, you know … dirty.  There are a few things that we can do to make our food a little bit safer.  But, unless we’re willing to have all our fruits and vegetables grown hydroponically in greenhouses, irradiate every last bit of our meat, permit no more unpasteurized dairy products, and pay the very hefty financial costs for doing so, we won’t really put much of dent in the presence of foodborne contamination.  So, all of this hand-wringing about Congress needing to do something about food safety smacks of tilting at very expensive windmills.

Sensing an overwhelming victory, however, the House of Representatives yesterday brought up H.R. 2749 for a vote on the floor, under a rule that permitted very little debate and allowed for no amendments, but which required a 2/3 majority vote to pass. I’m happy to say that the bill failed to reach the required 2/3rds majority by the slimmest of margins and did not pass.  Still, only 23 Democrats and 127 Republicans voted against the measure, meaning that there are a sufficient number of supporters to pass the legislation under normal procedures.  Sic transit gloria muddy.