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Can We Please Stop Freaking Out About S.510 (the Food Safety Modernization Act) Now?

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Flickr user paullew
The large food safety overhaul has passed the U.S. Senate after a clerical error and a deal between the Democrats and the Republicans to keep it out of the continuing resolution that will keep the government running, and is now headed back to the House for final passage (and, ultimately, to the President's desk).

There's been a lot of FUD (that's Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt, for those of you who have never with Microsoft's marketing department) surrounding the bill, because in its original draft it was a fairly simple bill. It gave power to the government to compel recalls of food thought to be contaminated, and required food producers to develop contingency plans and a way to analyze their products in case of a recall. (Currently, all recalls are voluntary.)

The bill was roundly criticized by proponents of local eating, because it applied the same rules to everyone, regardless of whether they were a huge conglomerate shipping food nationwide or a backyard herb grower selling at farmers' markets. It would have imposed a ridiculous burden on small producers and would probably have had the effect of stifling competition in favor of large consortia of industrial food producers.

The bill has been changed to exempt producers who do less than half a million dollars a year in sales and who sell mostly locally. Read that again: it addresses many of the concerns raised by small producers and local-food activists, yet there are still hundreds of people having hysterics over the incorrect assumption that "they're comin' to take my guns garden!"

This is not true; go read the bill. OpenCongress.org has it in its entirety as well as a good, English-readable summary, for those of us who prefer not to think in lawyer-speak.

Is it a perfect bill? No, and it's a damn shame that it has to exist at all. It does, however, put the bulk of the burden where it belongs: on industrial food producers who centralize their operations. It is a sad fact of life that the wider the "pipeline" (i.e., the more food is produced at once), the more destructive a single event of contamination becomes. A plant that produces a thousand tons of beef at one time will have a bigger problem during a contamination crisis than a producer who produces a hundred tons at a time, who will in turn have a bigger problem than a small producer who produces just a couple of tons at a time.

A food economy based on production for local purchase and based on small farms reduces the risk of widespread contamination of the food supply, because there simply isn't enough reach from any one producer. France and Germany, for example, have a much more locally-based food supply than the U.S. and, regardless of the problems with such an economy, they have a much lower incidence of foodborne illness (in France, the rate is about 1 out of every 800 people in a given year;  in the U.S., it's 1 out of 6 people.).

There are a lot of fights to have with regards to the parlous state of our national food chain, so please, activists, stop the unnecessary fear-mongering and work on getting people to eat better food.

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