The XX Factor

The Senate Could Make Your Food Safer Today. Or Not.

The Senate should vote today on S.510, the Food Safety Modernization Act. (I say should, because they also planned to vote on it last week.) Depending on who you listen to, this bill either gives the FDA some authority to actually do its job (at this point, the FDA has far fewer powers than you might imagine, and cannot, for example, demand that a company distributing tainted food issue a recall) or gives a huge regulatory agency still more evil powers to put small businesses under while making it impossible for large business to make a profit. It’s a heated debate (covered excellently at Grist here and here ). I’ve suffered from food poisoning, and I’m with Michael Pollan and Eric Schlosser, who think that the bill, while imperfect, is a dramatic improvement. As they said, when thousands of people picked up salmonella from two large egg-producing operations (one hesitates to call them “farms”) most of us were shocked that such huge operations (producing billions of eggs a year) had completely escaped FDA scrutiny. The ability to inspect more widely before people become ill could have prevented those illnesses-if the Senate had passed S.510, which it first began debating in March of 2009.

Can a lame-duck Congress pass a food safety bill? It’s been amended in an attempt to protect small local farmers from any particularly draconian provisions, and could be sweetened with the addition of an amendment repealing the 1099 provisions from the health care bill (the ones that require small businesses and individual contractors to issue a 1099 form to every individual or corporation from whom they purchase $600 or more worth of goods and services, and mean, for example, that I will need to contact Apple for its taxpayer identification number in order to issue them a form if I purchase a new laptop in 2012). That has nothing to do with food safety, of course, but it had nothing to do with health care, either.

So today, in theory, our senators are debating food safety. Most of us aren’t watching, which is why they also feel free to toss in debates about earmarks and the health care bill. We won’t worry about food safety again until the next dramatic instance of tainted salad greens or peanut butter, which may give the senators license to once again let this slide. If it passes, the process of reconciling the Senate’s bill to the House bill (H.R. 2749, passed in July 2001) can begin, or the House could agree to accept the Senate version. If it doesn’t, the whole thing rolls forward onto a new Senate’s calendar for 2011 and the process starts again, leaving plenty of time for the rest of us to play the next round of food safety roulette. Will it be spinach this time? Cheese? Your guess is as good as the FDA’s, and your power to prevent it not much less.

Photograph by Amity Beane from Wikimedia Commons.