Friday, January 12, 2007

Friday Food Politics: Federal Food Legislation Edition

A good friend asks the following:

Dear Frugal,

In a recent issue of the Sunday New York Times (link), the paper ran an article on the Safe Food Act that is set to go before congress in the new year. The Bill is essentially a populist response to the recent E. coli outbreaks, aiming to created a "single food safety agency, streamlining a system so bifurcated that the Department of Agriculture inspects frozen meat pizza while the Food and Drug Administration inspects cheese pizza." If I may, two questions comes to mind:

1) What effect do you forsee this having on the cost of produce for those of us unfortunate enough to live outside of California?
2) As the article suggests, is it truly possible that "fresh produce causes more food-borne illness than meat..."? This seems antithetical to my parochial, Joy of Cooking-bound culinary sensibilities...

-Man from LaManche
Baltimore, Maryland
Having spent a summer analyzing federal legislation, I have at least a little bit of experience on such matters. You can find the text of the Food Safety Act of 2005 here. It was introduced to both the House and the Senate in the last congressional session, but never made it through the committees to come up for a vote. (This is why committees in Congress are so important!) The bill will need to be reintroduced into the House and Senate because old bills are swept away for each new congressional session.

I have read through the bill myself, and it seems that it's basic function is to consolidate the various food regulation responsibilities that are currently scattered around in various agencies of the federal government. In addition, the Food Safety Administration will have more total oversight than currently exists.

I wouldn't necessarily describe the motivations for this bill as "populist". It seems to be more bureaucratic in nature, and is another example of the consolidation of power within the federal government. An analogous creation is the Homeland Security Department, which was supposed to "streamline" the job of protecting the country by consolidating separate agencies within one department. The Homeland Security Department has not been seen as a major improvement; the Food Safety Administration might be no different.

To answer your specific questions, it is somewhat unclear how the bill would affect food prices around the country. Funding for the agency seems to come from general appropriations rather than a specific food tax, but I'm not sure whether food establishments would have to pay for the cost of inspection themselves.

There is significant leeway in the bill as to the specific regulations that would be created. If the administrator created transparent regulations with clear standards and a streamlined process, I would expect food safety to go up and food cost to go down for meat products and processed foods made by large producers.

Fruit and vegetable costs would likely go up, b/c fruits and vegetable are currently lightly regulated. Under the bill, regulation of fruit and vegetable farms as well as fruit and vegetable processing would increase. However, the incidence of E. coli and other such contaminations might go down, so there is obviously a trade-off. The worst case scenario is of course increased costs without any increase in food safety.

Overall, I would expect food prices for big farms and big processing companies to stay the same or go down a little, but I would expect the prices from smaller operations to go up significantly. Check out this article for thoughts on why the bill would be bad for small farms.

As for your second question, I couldn't dig up any data in a quick search that gave a clear answer, but it is true that infections related to tainted vegetables are more significant than most people think. The statistic does not sound unreasonable. And yes, it does somewhat conflict with the vision we have of the purity of fruits and vegetables and the danger of animal products. However, the amount of dirt and bugs that arrive with my produce box every week may be an indication that vegetables on and in the ground aren't so clean afterall. (Wash your produce!)

To ask a more philosophical question, what is the proper role of government in protecting the public health? Must the government prevent all possible harms we could encounter? Must all hamburgers be cooked to medium well? Must runny yolks be outlawed? Can we eat unpasteurized cheese and milk? I'd prefer that responsibility (and freedom) were left to individuals and that the government help with gathering information on food safety that might otherwise be unobtainable, such as ingredients, origin, processing methods, etc.

I'm going to write more about this soon, but Michael Pollan's book, The Omnivore's Dilemma, is essentially a story of government food policy gone awry. (It's practically a libertarian manifesto, and Pollan doesn't even know it!) The feds subsidize corn, which causes us all to get fat, and they excessively regulate small farmers such that they can't make a profit.

Overall, the Food Policy Act seems much more likely to help the giant farmer than the small farmer, and it doesn't give any thought to protecting consumer freedom. In the eyes of the regulators, you are just part of the public, and your health needs to be protected at all costs. These things are deal breakers for me.

1 comment:

MysticGypsy said...

This is precisely the question posed by the failed drug war: what is the role of the government in protecting public health? It's definitely worth questioning whether we really want the government to prevent us from taking risks, or doing what we like.