Food Safety Bill Passes the Senate: What It Means for Eating in America

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The US Senate just passed the first major update to the nation's food safety policies in decades -- the bill gives the FDA the ability to test foods for dangerous pathogens, to issue food recalls, and requires that it do better and more frequent inspections of industrial food production plants. All of that is good news for the nation's food consumers -- namely, us. The stream of cases of tainted peanut butter, eggs, spinach, etc had drastically, and rightfully, weakened our confidence in national food safety. Will this bill repair it?It will help. A lot. It's not perfect (yes, the perfunctory phrase that must be uttered before discussing every single piece of legislation passed by Congress ever), but frankly, it does a lot of things that we should have been doing for a long time now. In addition to the benefits described above, it will also hold imported food to the same standards for inspection that we hold domestically produced food. There's no reason we shouldn't have had this policy in place for, like, always.

Addressing the too-infrequent inspections of disease-prone factory farms was also a major must -- and could serve to drastically reduce the number of salmonella outbreaks the nation experiences. As of now, that number is actually rising.

And yet, many were opposed to the food safety bill -- and not all of them were big food producers who didn't want to be bothered with the time and expenses required making sure their food was up to snuff. Many in the local and organic food movement were worried that such a sweeping safety bill would regulate them too heavily, and effectively drive them out of business. But a provision introduced in the later stages of debate exempts any producer making less than $500,000 in sales, so as long as it does its business locally.

Which is fair. As Michael Pollan points out, the vast majority of our food -- as in, 99% of it -- is produced by industrial-scale operations. The biggest outbreaks of salmonella, and other diseases borne from tainted foods, of course come from those industrial operations, not organic farms.

In short, this bill will do a reasonably good job of singling out the biggest threats to American food safety -- under-inspected industrial farms, mass shipments of foods from abroad that received too-lax oversight -- and then do a reasonably good job of addressing them with advanced inspection techniques.