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The Federal Hand That Feeds You: A Post-Modern History of Food Safety in the America

by Rafael Otto

The Latest Federal Legislation: An Introduction

On January 4, 2011, President Obama signed the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA)—the first overhaul of the Food and Drug Administration’s food safety standards since 1938. Largely touted as an upgrade to the FDA’s authority, the legislation is designed to address public health issues relating to food born illnesses and, for the first time, grant mandatory recall powers to the FDA. Factions on both sides of the aisle supported this legislation, from Michael Pollan to Monsanto, from organic farmers to the American Farm Bureau, as well as Republicans and Democrats. From a public health perspective, many agree that food contamination is a national problem, and the legislation is an attempt to improve the nation’s food supply from both domestic and international sources.

Chandler strawberries.
Photo courtesy Agricultural Research Service.

Major Elements of the Food Safety
Modernization Act

Preventive Controls: For the first time, FDA has a
legislative mandate to require comprehensive,
prevention-based controls across the food supply. 

Inspection and Compliance: The legislation
recognizes that inspection is an important means of
holding industry accountable for its responsibility to 
produce safe food; thus, the law specifies how often
FDA should inspect food producers. FDA is
committed to applying its inspection resources in a
risk-based manner and adopting innovative
inspection approaches. 

Imported Food Safety: FDA has new tools to
ensure that those imported foods meet US
standards and are safe for our consumers. For
example, for the first time, importers must verify
that their foreign suppliers have adequate
preventive controls in place to ensure safety, and
FDA will be able to accredit qualified third party
auditors to certify that foreign food facilities are
complying with U.S. food safety standards. 

Response: For the first time, FDA will have
mandatory recall authority for all food products. FDA
expects that it will only need to invoke this authority
infrequently since the food industry largely honors
our requests for voluntary recalls. 

Enhanced Partnerships: The legislation
recognizes the importance of strengthening existing
collaboration among all food safety agencies — U.S.
federal, state, local, territorial, tribal and foreign —
to achieve our public health goals. For example, it
directs FDA to improve training of state, local,
territorial and tribal food safety officials.

Source: Q&A on FSMA, U.S. Food and Drug

But questions remain. Does adding to the regulatory network surrounding food safety ensure a reduction in food supply contamination? Does the act get to the core issues affecting the nation’s food system?

In the months leading up to the bill’s passage by the Senate in December 2010, some critics continued to call the law tyrannical and a threat to small farms and producers. Most claimed that it was a necessary step for public health, improving a food supply that sickens millions of Americans and is responsible for the deaths of thousands every year. In November 2010, Senators Jon Tester (D-MT) and Kay Hagan (D-NC) created an amendment for the bill designed to ease regulations for smaller farms. This appeased many who believed that the reach of the FDA would go too far, into America’s smallest farms, and impose costly fees and procedures that would drive small farms out of business.

The Tester-Hagan Amendment eases regulations for farms that market more than 50 percent of products directly to the consumer through venues such as farmers’ markets and independent food stands. It also provides alternatives to produce standards and regulatory paperwork for farms that have gross sales of less than $500,000 and sell to venues that are either within 275 miles or located in-state. Additional amendments by Democratic senators included reduced traceability standards for food products generated by small farms, flexibility for small processors in developing hazard and critical control plans, and exemptions for farms engaged in low- or no-risk processing.

The Tester-Hagan Amendment tempers the one-size-fits-all language in earlier versions of the bill. In terms of implementation, the efforts of the FDA, which operates under the Department of Health and Human Services, will become more intricately linked to programs operated by the Department of Homeland Security and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

Most domestic public health concerns involving food supplies stem from large-scale farms and production facilities. Contamination of food produced and distributed in a single day at an industrial farm can adversely affect thousands of people. Consider the output of Tyson Foods, for example. A multinational poultry producer, Tyson distributes six million chickens to American consumers every day. The FSMA doesn’t extend to meat and poultry, however. While the USDA and the FDA will continue to share oversight tasks, a food safety crisis looms underneath the regulatory network and inside the centralized corporate structure of America’s farming industry.

Layers of Regulation

With the passage of the Food Safety Modernization Act, the bureaucratic layers linked to inspections and regulations continue to build. Since the FSMA does not apply to meat products, concerns about such risks as mad-cow disease must be directed to the USDA and its Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), whose jurisdiction covers poultry, pork, beef, lamb, catfish, and egg products. Jurisdictional boundaries are not very clear, however. While the USDA handles egg products and egg laying facilities, the FDA inspects shelled eggs. While the USDA handles the inspection process for sausage meat, the FDA is required to inspect sausage casings that hold the meat because they are listed as non-meat food products.

USDA food inspectors in chicken production facility
USDA staff working in the Food Safety and
Inspection Service inspect more than eight billion
birds annually.

Photo courtesy USDA.

Overall, there are 15 agencies at the federal level that have oversight on issues concerning food safety, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Environmental Protection Agency. Every five or six years, Congress passes a new farm bill. The most recent version is called the Food, Conservation, and Energy Act of 2008. Administered by the USDA, the bill is an expansive piece of legislation that influences farmland preservation, animal health and disease research, organic agriculture, environmental protection, agricultural subsidies, product marketing, and food safety education, among many others.

Other federal food safety imperatives include the formation of the Department of Homeland Security in 2002, which oversees Customs and Border Protection; the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service; and the Import Safety Commercial Targeting and Analysis Center. The Bioterrorism Act of 2002 requires food facilities that “manufacture/process, pack, or hold food for human or animal consumption in the United States” to register with the FDA, to have the ability to effectively trace food products, and to maintain detailed records about food acquisition, distribution, and production.

In 2004, the Bush administration introduced the National Animal Identification System (NAIS) in response to mad-cow disease. The NAIS was designed to establish a national tracking system for livestock throughout the country so that disease outbreaks could be traced to the point of origin. The NAIS was met with fierce resistance, primarily over the cost for small farms and ranches to install tracking systems for every animal, a requirement far more easily handled by industrial farms.

But it was also criticized for missing the point. Wendell Berry—agrarian poet, author, farmer, and advocate of sustainable farming practices—called industrial animal farms “disease breeding operations.” His solution? Put animals back to pasture with old fashioned farming models that effectively reuse animal waste and allow grass-based grazing. The solution implies that if animals are raised in healthy, sustainable ways, animal-tracking systems wouldn’t be necessary.

In early 2010, the Obama administration dissolved NAIS due to cost and lack of industry support. But the principles of traceability continue to linger at both the federal and state levels.

A broad legislative reach from multiple departments and levels of government is tough to navigate. It doesn’t help that the FDA defines “food” in broad terms, from raw agricultural commodities (including seeds) to alcoholic beverages, from live food animals to nutritional supplements. Without the current protections for small and local farmers, the FSMA would have unilaterally benefited industrial farming, whether intended or not. And early concerns about criminalizing seed collection and harvesting may stem from Monsanto’s approach to agriculture that promotes genetically engineered crops and prevents farmers from retaining seeds. A bill that would benefit Monsanto would further criminalize seed collection by helping Monsanto grow its market share.

Farmer holding Monsanto soybean seeds
A farmer holds Monsanto's Roundup Ready soybean
seeds. Confidential contracts detailing Monsanto
Co.'s business practices reveal how the world's
biggest seed developer protects its dominance over
the multibillion-dollar market for genetically altered
crops, an Associated Press investigation has found.
View full story at CapitalPress.com.

Photo by Dan Gill / Associated Press, courtesy

This expansive network of regulation still leaves the United States with critical food safety concerns. The Food Safety Modernization Act only upgrades the FDA’s regulatory standards. It fails to address the larger issues impacting the nation’s food supply. The coming months will give a better sense of how this legislation, with its rampant use of vague language, will be implemented. But even one of the strongest provisions of the FSMA—increased inspection frequency—is a questionable improvement to the regulatory system designed to stop the spread of food-borne illnesses. Inspection rates, depending on the risk assessment for the food processing facilities, will increase to once every three or five years (up from once every ten), while inspection rates for food facilities exporting food to the United States are scheduled to increase only moderately.

It appears unlikely that the FSMA will have a preventive impact against an outbreak that originates on a farm, involves animal feces, or contaminates a processing facility that handles food. In the case of the E. coli outbreak of 2006, for instance, the cause of the spinach contamination remains unknown. But E. coli survives in animals and can be transmitted through feces and water. It’s possible that feces from cattle, deer, or wild pigs may have contaminated the water supply for the California spinach farm involved in the contamination. And the FSMA generally exempts farms (and restaurants) from inspection, focusing instead primarily on the food processing facilities.

In fact, the FSMA may at best be a response to the powerful corporate interests that control the majority of food production and pricing in the United States. As regulatory oversight increases, America’s food supply system continues to centralize around the growth of large, multinational agribusinesses and mega-farms. As fewer companies gain larger shares of the food supply system (often in the name of production efficiency) government policy continues to sacrifice the small farm and inhibit the growth of an equitable, diverse, and healthy food system—even with the Tester-Hagan Amendment.

Centralization vs. Decentralization

At the heart of the food safety debate is the issue of delivering food free of disease-causing microorganisms. But it’s also important to consider the quality of America’s food supply, and whether or not farms are operating as stewards of the environment when delivering products to the consumer. Examining the food supply system means considering the status of small businesses—the center of a thriving American economy—and the ongoing trend of corporate and governmental centralization.

Boy harvesting green beans
Youth volunteer harvesting green beans at a small,
organic farm in Corrales, New Mexico.

Photo by Christina Kennedy.

Societies developed centralization tendencies thousands of years ago at the dawn of agriculture, leading to the development of urban centers and government. These trends continue in both government and corporate growth, closely linking government and business. The growth of multinational corporations, since the late 19th century, has had a significant impact in business markets and government policy. But a centralized government operating alongside a network of centralized corporations and business markets works against the prosperity of small business; i.e., federal policy that supports too-big-to-fail industry hampers the growth of small and mid-size businesses that could otherwise fill available niches.

In economic terms, decentralization implies a movement toward deregulation and privatization, both of which typically lead to corporate growth. In America’s agricultural industry, however, it is centralization that would lead to additional growth for big farms, leading to greater control of markets, seeds, and crops.

Michael Pollan, author of In Defense of Food and The Omnivore’s Dilemma, writes, “[T]hese days, the way we farm and the way we process our food, both of which have been industrialized and centralized over the last few decades, are endangering our health. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that our food supply now sickens 76 million Americans every year, putting more than 300,000 of them in the hospital, and killing 5,000.” Moreover, the “heavy burdens of regulation always fall heaviest on the smallest operations and invariably wind up benefiting the biggest players in an industry, the ones who can spread the costs over a larger output of goods. A result is that regulating food safety tends to accelerate the sort of industrialization that made food safety a problem in the first place.”

Tommy Thompson, former secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, likewise has expressed concerns over the vulnerability of the American food supply. He suggested that the system, with its centralized structure and intake of unregulated foreign products, could easily be subjected to terrorist attacks. Michael Pollen shares this opinion: “Our highly centralized food economy is a dangerously precarious system, vulnerable to accidental—and deliberate—contamination.”

The industrialized farm system creates multiple problems for America’s food supply and has taken its toll on safe, local food that is generally produced without detrimental environmental impact. In 2008, the independent Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production (PCIFAP) issued a report that highlights the perils of industrialized animal farming and the growing public health threat that these facilities foster. The report details environmental damage, harm to humans from animal-borne diseases, the detrimental effects of widespread antibiotic use in animals, contamination of the water supply with concentrated animal waste, and reductions in air quality. 

Algae bloom in Chesapeake Bay
Algae blooms at Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel on
the Chesapeake Bay. The blooms are a result of the
Bay's notorious "dead zones," caused by waste
runoff from large chicken farms.

Photo courtesy Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

Consider the presence of “dead zones” in Chesapeake Bay resulting from the waste runoff of massive chicken farms. Consider that the presence of animal waste—once a valuable byproduct for farms—is now a toxic health hazard due to sheer quantity coupled with massive antibiotic use in animals. Consider that this prolific use of antibiotics in animals is a leading cause of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Consider sterile fields that are producing pesticide-resistant weeds due to genetically modified crop and weed systems. Consider the recent USDA decision that allows unregulated planting of Monsanto’s genetically engineered alfalfa—a direct threat to America’s organic producers. The Food Safety Modernization Act addresses none of these critical concerns.

While America continues to produce food that reaches countries around the world, it is doing so by promoting industrial farming systems that are a direct threat to the environment, to small farms and businesses, and to diversity in agricultural production that is vital for a healthy food supply system. And when small farms, now defined by gross sales figures of $500,000 or less, must compete with multi-billion dollar companies like Monsanto (annual sales of $11.7 billion), Tyson Foods (annual sales of $26.1 billion), and Pilgrim’s Pride (annual sales of $7 billion), the protections offered small farms in the FSMA are simply inadequate.

Thinking Ahead

There is no perfect system for producing food. Just as we can’t design a freeway system free of traffic accidents, we cannot ensure that every product arriving in kitchens across America is free of defects. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t attempt to minimize harm to the general public, which is why so many people have rallied around the passage of the Food Safety Modernization Act. Yet the FSMA has only two strengths. It:

  • Provides the FDA with mandatory recall authority in the event of a contaminated food supply
  • Grants the FDA greater inspection authority for food produced in the United States and abroad

In terms of the larger concerns around food safety, the FSMA doesn’t confront the core threats to the safety and quality of the nation’s food supply. The issue is not simply non-meat food safety but a food crisis stemming from centralized, industrialized farms that have a tendency to generate disease and environmental problems while simultaneously disconnecting the consumer from the farm. What will it take to address the real issues around food safety and a centralized American food supply? What would it take to return to a more democratic, decentralized food system?

The principles of biodiversity offer one possibility for healthy environmental, agricultural, and economic systems. Biologically diverse ecosystems tend to offer better resistance to disease and are more capable of adapting to environmental changes. Agricultural studies indicate that plant rotation and diversity promote healthy crops that are disease resistant.

Small dairy farm in western Maryland.
Small, locally maintained farms such as this
dairy farm in western Maryland can more
effectively use principles of biodiversity in
their operations than can large-scale
corporate farms.

Photo courtesy Agricultural Research Service.

Additionally, a diverse small-farm sector with fair markets (most farms today buy from and sell to a single source) would be healthier and safer not only in terms of food safety but also in economic terms. As the Pew Commission report points out, “Industrialization has been accompanied by increasing farm size and gross farm sales, lower family income, higher poverty rates, lower retail sales, lower housing quality, and lower wages for farm workers.”

Domestic to Global: An Inconclusive Conclusion

The United States is in a unique position, one that can utilize an existing federal administrative system, an efficient farming economy, and a determined, resource-rich population to effectively increase the quality of life and improve the long-term impacts of food supply throughout the country—and beyond.

Innovative thinking by concerned citizens and small farms is laying the groundwork for a diverse and healthy food supply. From the rise of urban farms to the “buy local” movement and from farm-to-cafeteria programs to the proliferation of organic farming, a safe, quality food supply is within reach. But the growing control of the food supply by agribusiness monopolies is a real concern that must be addressed federally, and should be more fully examined, including in the context of anti-trust action. The Food Safety Modernization Act may be a step in the right direction—increased inspections, after all, imply increased accountability. But the food safety debate is far from over.

As the global population increases, the demands for a quality, safe, diverse food supply will continue to grow. Agricultural corporations will continue to make the case for higher output, genetically engineered crops, both in the United States and internationally. But sustainable agricultural innovations and policies must continue to develop widely at local and regional levels. Perhaps a recent decision by the Haitian government could serve as an example. Upon receiving 60,000 seed sacks of genetically engineered corn and vegetable seed from Monsanto, the government declared it a threat to local agriculture and destroyed the supply.

All food is not created equal. Just as Haiti seeks food sovereignty while emphasizing agricultural policies that supply local markets, consumers in the United States must play a vital role in shaping a global food supply. Now is the time for Americans to examine the complex relationships of government and corporations in agriculture, to understand the relationship’s impact on food consumed on a daily basis, to influence America’s agricultural future, and to take action on the growing threats to a healthy food system.


Rafael Otto is a writer, poet, and musician. He explores artistic voices and the creative process through in-depth interviews with an emphasis on perspective, place, identity, and intercultural communication. Rafael is an editor at Terrain.org, writes the blog at infiniteculture.wordpress.com, and is producing a theatrical and musical performance with the Portland Chamber Orchestra called "The Story of Rhythm" featuring a series of his original poetry. His nonfiction and creative work have appeared or are forthcoming in The Writer's Chronicle, Terrain.org, The Country Blues, Not Enough Night, The New Purlieu Review, and elsewhere. He lives in Tucson, Arizona, with his family.
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Biodiversity Issue, Kyoto Journal

Center for Food Safety

Factory Farm Map

Food and Water Watch

Food, Conservation, and Energy Act of 2008

Food Safety Modernization Act

Food Safety News

Good Food Radio Show, KCRW

Northeast Organic Farming Association

Organic Farming Research Foundation

Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production

President Obama's Food Safety Working Group

Tester-Hagan Amendment to the Food Safety Modernization Act

U.S. Food and Drug Administration

Worldwatch Institute




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