On November 29, the Monday after Thanksgiving, the US Senate has a chance to bring about a major improvement in the safety of the nation’s food by passing S 510, the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act. But although many in the food industry, along with consumers, support the bill, there are still some parts of the industry that don’t want the bill to pass. We can’t let them win.
Food safety reform has been a long time coming. FDA currently operates under rules that haven’t been updates since 1938, and we’ve seen graphic examples of how the law is not up to modern challenges. Four years ago e coli 0157:H7- contaminated spinach from a field in California was distributed nationwide, resulting in three deaths and hundreds of serious illnesses. Then two years ago Peanut Corporation of America shipped salmonella-contaminated peanut products that ultimately caused nine deaths. This year the discovery of salmonella in eggs and filthy conditions at the henhouses that produced them triggered a recall of half a BILLION eggs. The House finally passed a major food safety reform bill in the summer of 2009. The Senate voted its version out of committee in the fall of 2009, but then proved unable to get further.
However at almost the eleventh hour, it looks as though food safety reform actually could pass. Last week it cleared some procedural hurdles. Majority Leader Harry Reid scheduled a vote on whether to allow the bill to be brought to the Senate floor, and it passed by 74-25 (see how your Senators voted here), receiving bipartisan support, something almost unheard of in Washington today. Concerns of small farmers and processors, who worried that the bill might saddle them with new paperwork requirements they could not afford, were addressed in an amendment proposed by Senators Tester and Hagan, as well as by changes proposed by Senators Sanders, Bennet and Stabenow. After some modifications sought by consumer groups to insure that the amendment didn’t unacceptably undermine public health, the Tester-Hagen amendment was incorporated in the “manager’s amendment”. That’s final version of the bill that will actually be brought to a vote.
Most encouraging of all, last Friday, the Republican and Democratic leadership agreed on a time period for debate and a series of votes on amendments and on the bill itself to be held Monday November 29. There will be a “cloture” vote on ending debate on the bill, which must pass by 60 votes and, if that passes, a final vote on S 510.
Those votes on Monday will be critical. If more than 60 Senators vote again in support of food safety, as they did last week, the bill will get through. It is likely that the House would then also quickly pass the Senate version of the bill and it will be signed by President Obama in to law.
Some segments of the food industry however still oppose the bill and will be spending their Thanksgiving doing everything they can to persuade Senators in their states to change their mind and vote no. If there is a “no” vote on the 29th, the bill dies in this Congress. Those who think we can do better on food safety will have to start over from Square One.
We can’t let that happen. Eric Schlosser and Michael Pollan, who advocated so eloquently for a safety and more sustainable food production system in the movie Food Inc, recently indicated their strong support for the bill. They said: “S. 510 is the most important food safety legislation in a generation. The Tester amendment will make it even more effective… We both think this is the right thing to do.”
So do we. Everyone who cares about a safe and sustainably grown food should contact their Senators now, and tell them to make sure they come back to Washington promptly after Thanksgiving so that on Monday November 29 they can vote YES on S 510, the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act.