Op-Ed – PASA's Brian Snyder on Food Safety Legislation

Time for Resolution in Food Safety Debate

By Brian Snyder, Executive Director of PASA

December 6, 2010

As everyone learns in elementary school, the process of making laws in Congress is that a compromise is reached whereby everyone gets some of what they wanted and no one gets their whole wish-list fulfilled. Right?

Not anymore. The way things are decided in our nation’s capitol these days is more like the Wild West where winner takes all, depending on firepower, and pity the fools who dare to intervene. Such is the state of our democracy in the 21st Century.

With Food Safety legislation, the compromise worked out in the U.S. Senate in the form of S.510 could not have been more carefully crafted. But only minutes following its recent passage, extremist sharpshooters on all sides started taking it down, even before the House of Representatives could act upon it. Technical difficulties in the bill – normally overcome by fairly routine procedures – held up the flight of S.510 just long enough to give them a clear shot.

Here is the very odd situation we are left with . . . some actors on both sides of the small farm vs. large farm divide are suddenly working in concert to kill new Food Safety legislation altogether.

On one side we have representatives of large commodity groups crying foul over so-called “exemptions” allowed for smaller farms and businesses in the bill, which they say would create gaping holes in our nation’s food safety system.

On the other are advocates for smaller farms, concerned about unintended consequences of the bill as a whole, and leaning toward a paranoid interpretation that “if it comes from Washington, it must already be tainted by ulterior motives of Big Agribusiness.”

They are pointing fingers at each other, but ultimately agreeing that the bill should be defeated.

Adding to the confusion, we also have the unfortunate phenomenon of politicians, steeped in post-election Tea Party inclinations, hoping to highlight and exploit any flaws in the process whatsoever, under the guise of “throw the bums out,” at least before they themselves become the bums.

Part of the new process instilled in Washington is the supreme goal, not of determining and adhering to what is true, but of telling outright lies as cleverly as possible, with intent to win without compromise. Much of what is being said in the ongoing kill-the-bill efforts under the heading of “truth” could not be further from it. Confusion is no longer the enemy of the political process, but its principal method.

But actual truth is what I’m after here, so let me lay a little of it on you.

First, there are no real exemptions in S.510 at all, only alternative means by which smaller farms and processing businesses that might otherwise be unfairly impinged upon can meet the overall objectives of the bill. This is in fact why some small farm advocates continue to worry about this legislation, even as big commodity groups express their contrary objections.

Second, it’s high time everyone understands the greatest, most expansive exemption of all that has been inscribed in existing food safety law and our food system generally speaking. Any farm producing only commodities, for processing elsewhere and marketing without explicit connection to the farm of origin, is already exempt from most aspects of Federal scrutiny. In other words, the Great Exemption for most farms is anonymity.

The third point is that farms serving mostly local markets – with their names on products – have taken and always will take more personal responsibility for their wares right from the start. The most obvious strength of the local food movement is that its farmer heroes welcome the scrutiny of their customers, and the government for that matter, because the aim is to be as transparent in the process of producing good food as possible.

A related note is that, on the whole, sustainable and/or organic farmers, most of whom are serving more localized markets, operate using science-based systems to achieve food safety “from the ground up” as it were, as opposed to the more top-down, regulatory-driven methods otherwise necessary to keep most food safe. There is a distinct advantage to using a “systems” approach instead of the more conventional, after-the-fact reliance on “standards” to maintain food quality and safety.

In other words, and as in so many other facets of life, it can be said that government regulations are there to serve the “unwilling” or at least those who wish to remain mostly “anonymous” in providing a service to the public at large.

The current process with respect to Food Safety legislation is regrettable, but it is time to move forward. Perhaps we can also agree that it’s time to reexamine the positive power of compromise, the desirability of choosing truth over confusion as a methodology, the effectiveness of a proactive systems approach and the place of personal responsibility in achieving not only the food system we want, but the society most of us still believe is possible.

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