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Food "Safety" Reform and the Covert Continuation of the Enclosure Movement

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If we lived in a world where our perceptions weren't so well managed, we might also see articles in the press about a very important paper Robert Scharff co-authored just a few weeks before the Pew-funded Produce Safety Project report made headlines across the country. In fact, this paper should be required reading for Senators considering their vote for the game-changing legislation. Published in February 2010 and entitled "Food Safety in the 21st Century," the paper looks at the question of whether our food is really getting less safe. It asserts that "Recent increases in reported outbreaks of food-related illnesses have spurred Congress to respond to the public's growing concern over food safety with new legislation purported to strengthen the food safety system. Congress's action reflect the common perception that food is becoming less safe, but in reality the recent increases in reported outbreaks stem from increased improvements in surveillance of the food supply system and increased press coverage of food-related illnesses."[48]

Scharff and his co-authors, Richard Williams and David Bieler, state that "Even though it is not the crisis the media makes it out to be, food safety remains a significant problem. A key question for the policy makers is whether legislation that leads to more regulations and inspections will result in significant improvements in food safety. We believe it will not."[49]

As an example of ineffective regulations, the authors cite the FDA's imposition of HACCP safety controls and inspections on raw seafood in the 1990s, explaining that "This case also demonstrates the weakness of a politically motivated regulatory system, as evidenced by the motive of large seafood manufacturers who sought the rule, in part, to impose costs on their smaller rivals. Overall it had a negligible impact on public health." [50]

Scharff, Williams and Bieler also take issue with the world view that the only way to solve problems is to have more regulations and more auditing: "Instead of focusing on regulation and inspection, food safety agencies should invest more resources in discovering solutions to systemic food safety problems"When effective solutions are found, instead of enshrining them in regulations, the government can publish them on the Web. Firms can then determine for themselves whether the solutions will work for their particular product or process and will incorporate these practices into the millions of existing detailed contracts between buyers, suppliers, and insurance companies." [51]

The authors suggest that the expansion of FoodNet and PulseNet are the kinds of investments that "are likely to be much more cost effective than more government inspections of plants since the overwhelming majority of plants do not produce outbreaks."[52]

Their conclusion calls into question the entire premise of the legislation before the Senate. Scharff, Williams and Bieler argue that "By investing in information rather than regulation, the government will increase accountability, foster solutions, and improve the safety of the food supply."[53] Shouldn't we examine alternative approaches to food safety other than the one pushed by those with long-standing ties to industry? Shouldn't Congress be called upon to debate alternatives before it votes in business-busting and job-killing measures? Investigating root causes is the only real way of finding real solutions. Mandating game-changing regulations and auditing that have the power to significantly alter the marketplace have to date provided no evidence of progress, so perhaps we should consider another option before we put our farmers out of business unnecessarily.

Local Oversight for Local Food

Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsak identified one of the ways to revitalize rural America would be to "link local farm production to local consumption. Investments in local processing and storage facilities will allow for large scale consumers (e.g. schools, hospitals and small colleges) in rural communities to buy locally produced goods from smaller scale operations. These new and niche markets will leverage the wealth generated from the land, create jobs and repopulate rural communities." [54] But how realistic how realistic is such a plan if the farmers are run out of business by being subject to the same regulations as the global food system players? It simply will not be feasible to establish a local food procurement process for state institutions if the costs of "safety" compliance pose a barrier for small business or if traditional means of food production are criminalized.

The Illinois Local and Organic Food and Farm Task Force report states that the local food movement needs local oversight, not the sort the pending food safety legislation seeks, which would harmonize domestic standards with international standards. The Illinois Task Force recognizes that regulatory barriers will impede growth and wants to "Allow farms stands to be set up by reducing paperwork, health regulations, taxes and other barriers."[55] It suggests we need to reduce the barriers for those trying to start businesses, noting that "A multiplicity of local, state, and federal regulations hinder farmers' ability to build and expand their various projects. The tangle of jurisdictions, fees, property taxes, and interpretations discourage aspiring entrepreneurs from entering business."[56] The Task Force encourages states to "develop a two-tiered system of rules and regulations to ensure that revised state regulations do not default to existing federal regulations written primarily for industrial-scale farming operations,"[57]

Congress needs to reconsider how food safety rules can be made as democratically as possible for as little cost as possible to small business. Richard Williams, who now serves as the managing director of the Regulatory Studies Program and the Government Accountability Project at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University after a 27-year career as the director of social sciences at the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition at the FDA, recently addressed this issue in a working paper called "Regulation Checklist: Common Pitfalls in Regulations." Williams says we need to watch out for regulation "designed to help some at the expense of others. The regulation may end up helping society overall but the motivation for the regulation, if it can be discerned, should make you suspicious. Firms and industries have used regulation since the beginning to raise rival's costs. The two groups of firms that are normally adversely affected are those that are either not using a particular technology when a technology is mandated by the government or small firms who must bear large, fixed costs over a smaller sales base. This problem is compounded when there is a "bootlegger and Baptist" problem where advocacy groups and a sector of industry agree on the need for regulation to suit their own purposes."[58]

Williams also addresses the issue of federalism as it relates to regulation, and his position differs considerably from that of Deputy Commissioner of Foods Michael Taylor, who advocates the integration of local and state functions with federal standards[59].
Taylor intends to centralize control over a national food safety system, establishing standards that will eventually be adopted by state and local agencies, a goal that will be facilitated by a transfer of federal funds to cash-strapped local and state agencies. The larger, unspoken aim is to align, or harmonize, US laws with international standards. Williams's perspective, however, is one that respects the US constitution. He states that "The agency has not seriously considered issues of federalism, a basic division of governmental responsibilities established by the Constitution. In addition to the constitutional question, states or localities with more local knowledge and more targeted regulations may be the appropriate place to address problems. In this case there is no need for federal regulation

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Nicole Johnson is a researcher and activist living in Ventura county, California. Her kids wish she would go back to painting and stop worrying so much about the world.

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