When I made my omelet on a recent morning, I didn’t worry about the safety of the mushrooms, tomatoes, onions, eggs or cheese. I knew that all of those ingredients came from farmers whose production and food safety practices I could trust.
But microbial contamination of food has become a visible issue in recent years, and the federal government is appropriately seeking to protect the nation’s food safety through new legislation and regulations. Farmers and consumers alike benefit from well-crafted food safety regulations, but finding the right balance of regulatory oversight is proving difficult.
Balance is certainly needed. Currently, many farmers are compelled to operate within a patchwork of food safety requirements set up by large buyers or processors. If a farmer has more than one processor for various crops, it’s easy to have conflicting requirements, and the process of setting private agreements has not been transparent or open to public input. Some of these agreements include extreme requirements, like destroying wildlife and wildlife habitat on a farm, never mind that wildlife has not been shown to be the source of food safety problems.
In July, the House passed a bill overhauling the regulatory framework for addressing food safety. The Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee passed its version in mid-November and sent it on to await floor action.
Both bills focus on fruits, vegetables, dairy and grains and the products made from them, all of which are regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, as opposed to meat, poultry, or processed egg products, which are regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The bills substantially tighten FDA food safety regulatory authority, with the aim of “prioritizing prevention, strengthening surveillance and enforcement, and improving response and recovery,” as FDA Commissioner Margaret Hedburg told the Senate committee last fall.
The bills require facilities that commingle foods from more than one farm or that manufacture or process food to register with the FDA, create Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points plans, implement such plans, take corrective actions as needed, keep records for tracing purposes in case the FDA has to investigate safety problems, and allow FDA inspection of the facility, among other requirements. The House bill would assess a $500 annual fee, regardless of the size of the facility.
The rub lies in what is defined as a facility, since that’s where FDA authority will be brought to bear. Problematically, the bills’ definitions not only target the kinds of facilities that have been responsible for the majority of tainted food outbreaks -- such as those that process and bag large volumes of salad greens -- but would also bring hundreds of thousands of small farmers under exhausting and expensive regulatory scrutiny. Nobody objects to appropriate levels of regulatory oversight for farmers of any size where there’s a likelihood of risk, but the bills’ regulatory hammer is not risk-based.
The bills’ overreach creates various problems. For one, FDA staffers recognize the impossibility of actually enforcing the provisions on all farms included under the bills’ rubric, which raises the question of which farms would actually get needed attention. And it makes the provisions impossibly expensive to implement, with the House bill estimated to cost nearly $2 billion a year.
Food safety is a serious concern, and action is needed to protect the nation’s food safety supply. Private food safety agreements are inappropriate, but federal regulatory approaches need to be calibrated to target actual risks. Legislation should aim for a risk-based process that targets the most likely sources of contamination and protects small farmers from an excessive regulatory burden that would put them out of business. Congress hasn’t yet struck the right balance.
Margaret Krome of Madison writes a semimonthly column for The Capital Times. She is a member of the state Board of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection. email@example.com