The Food Safety and Modernization Act: a Small Farmer’s Perspective (video)

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January 10, 2011. The nation’s new, comprehensive food safety legislation, The Food Safety and Modernization Act (S.510), just barely passed the recent lameduck session of the 111th Congress, marking the first major overhaul of food safety rules in more than 70 years.

As Anthony Boutard, a certified organic, urban farmer explains in the video, this legislation will be good for eaters, but it will place a tremendous burden on one particular class of grower, the midsize farmer, those by the government’s definition, whose revenues fall within the $500,000-1,000,000 range. Without the Tester amendment, small, diversified farmers like Anthony Boutard that may grow over 200 different food crops, the testing requirements alone, would have been too onerous, too costly, and time consuming to bear. While food safety concerns have grown exponentially in recent years, it’s important to note, as Boutard emphasizes in this video, almost all food contamination problems are not related to small or midsized farm operations, and therefor careful consideration for new regulatory requirements be considered against their net effect to the bottom line for these particular low risk groups.

In part 2, coming soon, Boutard talks more about the Tester amendment, and why it is critically important to small farmers like himself that certain food safety requirements not be applied to small farm operations.

More about the Importance of the Food Safety and Modernization Act (S.510):

The Food Safety and Modernization Act (S.510) is designed to improve traceability of foods (and food ingredients), provide for more rigorous testing, and greater powers to federal authorities to impose mandatory product recalls when contamination is suspected. Take for example the 2009 Salmonella contamination that spread from a single peanut processing plant in Georgia resulting in (at least) 8 deaths, and sickening hundreds of people across the country. Not only did it take months to track down the source, and even then, because of incomplete supply chain records, it became a herculean task for the coordinating agencies to trace each of the thousands of products, and hundreds of companies (retailers, and other processing plants) where the potentially contaminated peanut butter ingredients were processed, or sold.

Here’s what Steven Sundlof, one of the principal investigators for the Center For Disease Control (CDC), then had to say about the difficulty of tracing contaminated ingredients, in response to a question from Mary McVane, a Los Angeles Times reporter:

Mary McVane: Hi. I wanted to sort of follow up on something that was previously discussed. One company with one or two products seems to have such a pervasive reach and I’m wondering if that in some way points out the vulnerability of our food supply.

Stephen Sundlof: This is Steve Sundlof. Well it certainly points to complexity of our food supply and you know there – you know we have seen this before with the – in fact last year with the pet foods, melamine contamination in which two very small companies ended up having a tremendously large impact on that – on pet food. It is – I only can say that it is what it is and that a relatively small company may have great scope of distribution if that ingredient is used in a lot of different products.

This food safety bill addresses a number of critical deficiencies that would not only assist investigators in more quickly determining the original source(s) of particular food contamination outbreaks once they occur, it also provides for mandatory access to company records when a problem is suspected, and more rigorous supply chain record-keeping requirements to facilitate a quicker response through the distribution chain. Had these measures been in place at the time of the peanut butter contamination spread, it may have lessened the impact of this type of outbreak, particularly by enabling investigators to zero in on suspected products sooner. Still, at the very least, from a public health perspective, wouldn’t it be in the public interest to require that all positive test results be reported to local health authorities for possible follow-up inspections? As the bill is currently written, companies are only required to turn over their testing records after inspectors have reason to suspect contamination from a particular source.

For the first time, this legislation empowers the FDA (and its partners) with the authority to issue mandatory recalls when contamination is suspected (before they relied upon voluntary industry compliance), and requires more ongoing testing of food products, and processed ingredients, that must be performed by an authorized lab (as mentioned above, because of the Tester amendment, small farmers are exempt from this testing requirement). No longer will companies be allowed to use third-party private labs, making it more likely (this is the hope, anyway) for companies to take corrective action when tests confirm the presence of pathogens in their products. Unlike the Georgia based peanut processing plant that received a dozen positive results on (12) different product batches sent to their own testing labs, but took little, or no corrective action, other than to resubmit each batch to obtain a second (and different) opinion. Each retested batch that came back negative were then distributed into the food chain.

Additional Resources:

Pending U.S. Food Safety Bill Promises More Accountability-Backed by Science- Scientific American (December 7, 2010)

Food Safety Modernization Act: Putting the Focus on Prevention

Update on the Salmonella Typhimurium Investigation
FDA/CDC Joint Media Teleconference
January 27, 2009

FDA Expands Peanut Butter Products Recall In Latest Salmonella Scare

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