Food Safety: Why Is the Food Safety Bill So Controversial?

The Food Safety Bill S510 has bounced around so much that people have had trouble keeping up with its current status. But the real question about the bill is not where it is now -- (in the Senate attached to an appropriations bill) but why certain groups hail it while others abhor it. (To keep track of the bill and for more information on its evolution, go here.)

On the one hand, the bill's supporters argue that the bill is a once-in-a-lifetime chance to reign in the food giants, while on the other side, people fear that their gardens and seeds will be outlawed, and their raw food suppliers raided and shut down by Homeland Security. Grist reported that a recent FDA pathogen hunting raid on cheese producers came up empty handed.

On the pro-bill side, House Democrats, and a whole host of organizations, like Consumer's Union, General Mills, Kraft Foods and others, have lined up in favor of it. To urge passage of the Tester Amendment, which holds the hope of exempting very small growers and producers, even writers, Michael Pollan and Eric Schlosser gave the bill their tepid last minute support. For more detail on that, read my earlier blog here.

Meanwhile, the bill's opponents critique its across-the-board application of costly bureaucratic reporting procedures (backed by new criminal enforcement provisions) which were designed to nudge huge agribusinesses (that cause most of the existing safety hazards) into compliance. Groups such as the Farm and Ranch Freedom Alliance argue that adhering to these procedures will wipe out the burgeoning small industry of organic and sustainable food growers -- thus removing the safe food upon which many health-conscious people rely. The Tester Amendment shelters those who gross less than $500,000 a year -- but many medium sized suppliers are omitted from that exemption.

In its underlying presumptions and philosophy, I contend that the bill mirrors the different emphases of conventional and integrative medicine. While conventional medicine's strength is offering powerful treatments after disease manifests, the integrative approach aims to build health, and thereby prevent disease before it happens by addressing the causes of disease. In the same way, organic growing practices emphasize the health of the soil, plant, and food, while agribusiness relies upon heavy pesticide use, radiation, and other harsher interventions to kill germs in food grown in assembly line fashion. While the industrial food supply is a reality, the debate over the bill stems from a fundamental disagreement about whether industrial values and methods should predominate in determining safety. Forbes' Gregory Conko is among those who question that the bill will be effective in producing safer food. He writes that,

"More frequent inspections may seem superficially appealing because current law only requires facilities to be inspected at least once every 10 years. But the new law would merely require inspections for most facilities every five years, and once every three years for identified "high-risk" facilities.

Doubling the rate of inspections of the tens of thousands of food production facilities in the U.S. would account for most of the bill's $1.4 billion four-year cost. But does anyone really believe that a single inspection every three to five years would do much to catch unsafe producers? Even if they occurred more often, the usefulness of inspections is limited by a practical inability to detect microbial pathogens (visually)."

"The bigger the supplier, the proportionately fewer the inspections, according to the way the FDA inspects now and will continue to inspect," says James Turner of Citizens for Health.

As interpretations over the dense and evolving legal language of the bill baffle easy answers, one thing is clear, much of the language is vague, leaving key decisions to the discretion of the FDA Secretary. While people can rest assured that the bill contains no current language that outlaws home gardens, certain provisions leave open how the bill could be interpreted to apply to dietary supplements, organics and other mainstays of integrative health, says Turner.

Further, the integrative health community has had past experience with how the FDA operates, as drugs like Avandia remained on the market for years despite troubling safety records. So apart from the bill's wording, a cause for concern is the latitude of interpretation by those enforcing the bill. The FDA Food Czar, Michael Taylor, comes from Monsanto and played a role in instituting rGBH, a hormone used in conventional milk.

Should the bill pass, the integrative health, raw food, and other interested communities that have failed to take action to defeat this bill, may be forced to face up to the relationship between nutritional and health advice, and activist health oriented social policy. I'm nearing completion on a book about this, and I encourage anyone interested in this type of insight to sign up for action ezines at

To take action on S510, go here: