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December 21, 2010

US Passes Sweeping Food Safety Law

by Steve Baragona

New legislation makes exceptions for small producers

Congress has passed sweeping legislation aimed at making the U.S. food supply safer.

The bill gives the government broad new powers to inspect processing plants, order recalls and impose stricter standards for imported foods. And, rather than having to waiting for an outbreak to start before it can order a recall, the Food and Drug Administration will now require producers to draw up detailed food safety plans to reduce contamination risks before food goes to market.

While the new law tightens regulations on food producers, it does exempt small producers. That's a concession to the growing local-food movement in the United States.

Sickened

U.S. health authorities say one in six Americans gets sick from food borne illness each year. Rylee Gustafson was one of them.

 

When she was nine years old, Rylee ate spinach contaminated with E. coli bacteria. She was one of the worst affected of at least 200 people in 26 states who got sick in that 2006 outbreak.

She says it started with cramps and diarrhea, but got much worse. "Blood just started coming out and it was just really gruesome and very terrifying because I didn't know what was happening to me."

Rylee got so sick her kidneys shut down and she may eventually need a transplant.

More recently, outbreaks linked to eggs, peanut butter and other foods affecting hundreds of people in multiple states have also drawn a great deal of attention.

Making changes

The new law aims to prevent those outbreaks.

"You've got a real shift here, a paradigm shift in how the government ensures that the food supply is safer," says Sandra Eskin, food safety campaign director at the Pew Charitable Trusts.

She says tightened regulation is especially important in today's food production system. While contamination is rare, a little bit can go a long way. "Any initial contamination can be compounded and, again, spread widely if a product is mixed with other non-contaminated products."

She says it was the mixing of contaminated and non-contaminated spinach, shipped nationwide, that caused the widespread 2006 outbreak.

Industrial v. local food

Opposition to the industrial food system is one of the factors behind a growing local food movement. The number of markets where consumers can buy directly from small, local farmers has more than doubled in the last decade, to more than 6,000 nationwide.

Monika Blaumueller lives near one such market in Washington, D.C. "I have a lot of confidence in the food. I know that things are done in small batches. That makes it more sanitary."

She might feel safer but experts say local food carries the same risks. However, fewer people would be affected by an outbreak at a smaller-scale farmers' market than at a food factory.

Small farmers worried that rules intended for big corporations would squash the local food movement.

"A one-size-fits-all approach would have put small farmers and ranches out of business or prevented them from providing locally produced, healthy, fresh food to consumers who want it," says Susan Prolman, executive director of the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition.  

In an indication of how popular the movement has become, advocates won an exemption from the regulations for growers below a certain size who sell to local markets.

That's a mistake, says Tom O'Brien, an attorney for the industry trade group the Produce Marketing Association.

"There's an assumption that there are two separate and distinct markets for food: one of large guys and one of small. At least in the produce industry, that's not how it works. It's really an integrated market."

And, he notes, a growing number of restaurants and big supermarket chains buy locally grown produce. That will make it hard for consumers to know whether or not their food is protected by the new law.

Despite that drawback, most food safety advocates support the new law and say it should reduce the number of Americans like Rylee Gustafson who get sick from tainted food.