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Posted at 4:36 PM ET, 11/18/2010

Michael Pollan on the food safety bill

By Ezra Klein

pollantree.JPGThe Senate might get to the Food Safety Modernization Act as soon as tonight. Though I'm interested in the subject, I haven't been able to spend much time looking into the bill. But Michael Pollan, author of the Omnivore's Dilemma, has. His summary judgment? It would be "a tragedy" if it didn't pass.

Ezra Klein: What's your bottom line on this bill? Is it good? Bad?

Michael Pollan: It's very interesting that the consumer groups and the people representing smaller producers and farmers have come together. It didn't look like that was going to happen a few weeks ago. The bill as originally written basically treated all farms and food producers the same. It was one-size-fits-all regulation. This was a problem for smaller farmers and processors because the regulatory burden was going to make life difficult for them. They felt they weren't the problem, and to suffer as part of the solution to the problem was an undue burden.

So Jon Tester, an organic farmer himself, came up with an amendment exempting producers according to three criteria. If you sold half of your food directly to consumers or retailers, had sales under $500,000, and sold within 400 miles of where you were producing, you'd be exempt from the provisions of the bill. The consumer groups didn't like this because they felt there was a risk to food safety no matter the scale. The e coli outbreak a few years ago was a small producer feeding into a big wholesaler, for instance. So they came out against the amendment. And there were many small farmers willing to see the whole bill go down if the Tester amendment wasn't there, which I think would've been a tragedy.

But they managed a compromise?

Tester made some changes. The 400-mile radius struck a lot of people as very large. You could be near the Mexico border and sell in Los Angeles. But 400 miles is apparently an official USDA definition of local. So Tester shrank it to 275 miles and made some other tweaks to satisfy the consumer groups. So now the small and local food advocates and the consumer groups are together on this, and the Tester amendment will be in the managers amendment, which means it won't require a separate vote.

To back up on the bill a bit, what do you think of its overall thrust? There's obviously a lot going on in the legislation, but what problem is it basically aimed at solving, and does the solution make sense?

The big thing will be to give the FDA more authority and resources. The FDA has not until this bill had the authority to recall tainted food. This gives them that power, and more resources for inspections. It also pushes producers to write plans showing their points of vulnerability that the FDA can use. Now, it's essentially a voluntary system, and there are good critiques of that. But it's the best thing we've got going now. What this doesn't deal with is hamburgers and things under the USDA, which is where a lot of the risks are. But it could be a template for how we do it in the future.

This bill doesn't affect the USDA? That leaves a lot out, no?

In a better world, we'd be debating the creation of a food safety agency that doesn't separate meat from poultry. That balkanization is one of the biggest problems in food safety. FDA has fresh produce. They have eggs. But they don't have chickens. USDA has chickens. But once the egg is cracked and turned into Egg Beaters or something, it's back to USDA. It's completely absurd. And unfortunately, we're not addressing that.

Where do you come down on the safety of the small producers? It seems to me like leaving them unregulated could also endanger their business: If an artisinal cheese producer, or a farm with heritage pigs, ends up making a bunch of people sick, the resulting backlash and outcry could put all small producers at risk, or turn a lot of people off of local food.

It's an enormous danger. If there is a problem with a small producer, the FDA then gets authority over them -- they lose their exemption. But that's obviously after the fact. But look, there can be a food safety problem at your house or at a church supper or on a small farm. But the scope can be contained. It won't affect hundreds of thousands of people in 50 states, as is true with larger producers. That's little comfort to the people affected, of course. But there is some risk in eating and always will be. If we were to choke off the renaissance of small farms and local food, we'd be losing one of our alternatives to a highly industrialized system that has special risks of its own.

Back when I reported more on this stuff, I thought that industrial food was similar to the financial system. It had made a lot of changes that got rid of smaller, more routine risks, but in doing, had opened itself to catastrophic risks where the system can break down in enormous, extremely harmful ways. So rather than a few people getting sick semi-regularly, outbreaks are rare, but they can affects millions of people at a time.

There are quantum differences when you're producing for a small firm and a major producer. When you mix spinach or lettuce from 50 different farms and one is contaminated, you're contaminating all of it. There's more traceability and accountability when there's what Tester calls "eyeball-to-eyeball" contact between producers and customers. The industrial systems are brittle systems. They lose a certain resilience. And that leads to risks of another kind.

Photo credit: Alia Malley

By Ezra Klein  | November 18, 2010; 4:36 PM ET
Categories:  Food, Interviews  
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"Though I'm interested in the subject, I haven't been able to spend much time looking into the bill."

Tha's OK. No one even bothered to read the HealthCare bill. Why should you get excited about knowing anything about this food safety bill?

Just 'go along'.

Posted by: WrongfulDeath | November 18, 2010 4:51 PM | Report abuse

I am curious why there is such discrepancy between Michael Pollan's review of the bill and that of rabid opponents of the bill. Many opponents cite Monsanto as being the bill's ghost writer. I know M. Pollan was very critical of Monsanto in his lucid critique of the industrialized food system (Omnivore's Dilemma.) But, in this interview, he says nothing about Monsanto's role in this bill. Am I to take comfort in M. Pollen's silence on the topic of Monsanto? And the undue control opponents say the bill (supposedly) would give government agencies over backyard gardeners, seed savers, etc.?

signed, confused about S 510

Posted by: lazybabies | November 18, 2010 5:46 PM | Report abuse

I have the same question as lazybabies. The opposition to this bill was that Monsanto wanted to control seeds, and that this bill would prevent home growers from growing their own vegetable gardens.

I follow Pollan and respect his views. Would like to know where he stands on these issues.

Posted by: deepseas | November 18, 2010 6:14 PM | Report abuse

It is true we need food safety legislation, however this bill is a nightmare of regulations designed to kill the family farmer. Forget about buying produce from local farmers' markets.

Senate Bill S 510, the Food Safety Modernization Act, would grant the U.S. government new authority over the public's right to grow, trade and transport any foods.

This would give the FDA the power to regulate the tomato plants in your backyard. It would grant them the power to arrest and imprison people selling cucumbers at farmer's markets. It would criminalize the transporting of organic produce if you don't comply with the authoritarian rules of the federal government.

It restricts the cultivation, trade and consumption of food and agricultural products of one's choice. This law would also give the U.S. government the power to arrest any backyard food producer for merely growing lettuce and selling it at a local farmer's market.

It would criminalize seed saving turning backyard gardeners who save heirloom seeds into criminals. This is designed to give giant agri-business corporations like Monsanto a monopoly over seeds.

It would create an unreasonable paperwork burden that would put small food producers out of business, resulting in more power over the food supply shifting to large multinational corporations.

Posted by: alance | November 18, 2010 6:22 PM | Report abuse

Klein: "If an artisinal cheese producer, or a farm with heritage pigs, ends up making a bunch of people sick, the resulting backlash and outcry could put all small producers at risk, or turn a lot of people off of local food."

LOL. How the girl does fret about things.

And dumping FDA compliance forms on every food producer in the country is going to prevent the already very rare food outbreaks how?

Oh, but it's more and bigger government, just the thing a girl like Klein can't resist.

Posted by: msoja | November 18, 2010 7:20 PM | Report abuse

The frickin feds want to squeeze your ripe melons at the airport and now they won't let you grow them and sell them.

The frickin feds want to criminalize small scale farming so the fat cats can kill all competition. This is what happens when you let corporations write legislation.

The want to look where the sun don't shine.

Posted by: alance | November 18, 2010 7:33 PM | Report abuse

None of you read the article, did you? They compromised, tweaked the bill so as not to affect small local growers.

Posted by: moiraeve1 | November 18, 2010 9:56 PM | Report abuse

--*They compromised, tweaked the bill so as not to affect small local growers.*--

We're supposed to be thankful for THAT? The whole thing is a disgrace, a travesty, another unneccessary waste, another loss of freedom, another hit on accountability and responsibility, another bite out of the country's wealth, another boulder the entrepreneur will have to shoulder to make a start, on and on.

The FDA is already bloated beyond its ability to function. It's already a huge drag on the medical industry. It already can't manage the portion of FOOD that it's charged with overseeing. And, I contend, it's useless. It's pretend protection, at a huge cost. It's one more disgraceful nail in America's coffin.

Posted by: msoja | November 18, 2010 10:06 PM | Report abuse

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Posted by: prettyrose1 | November 18, 2010 10:29 PM | Report abuse

Here's Hope & Change version of the bloated FDA bureaucracy at work:

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration says drinks that mix alcohol and caffeine are unsafe - one day after the maker of the popular alcoholic drink Four Loko announced that it is tossing three of its main ingredients to avoid the product being taken off convenience-store shelves.

The FDA officially warned Phusion Projects, which distributes Four Loko, as well as three other alcohol distributors yesterday that they face product seizure if they don't remove caffeine from their products.
//end cite

Anyone complains, call the cops.

Posted by: msoja | November 19, 2010 12:03 AM | Report abuse

"How the girl does fret about things."

Manly man mslogan would have you believe that carves steaks from live cows with the sharpened teaspoon he used to remove his own appendix, then eats them raw and smears the blood over his face. What a tedious, irrelevant fraud he is.

In the meantime, the Tester amendment (with assistance from Kay Hagan, who's done good work on this) will be good for the cooperative kitchen and processing facilities that allow small growers and producers to add value to their products, without requiring them to follow the same inspection regimes and disaster planning that are clearly necessary for Smithfield pigalopolises and other industrial producers.

Posted by: pseudonymousinnc | November 19, 2010 12:49 AM | Report abuse

"The FDA is already bloated beyond its ability to function."

Which is the silver lining. The Princess Leia principle applies. "The more you tighten your grip, the more star systems will slip through your fingers." Meaning, the bigger they get, the harder it becomes for them to enforce the stupid laws they make. I've got a sneaking suspision that it will mostly business as usual for 99% of small farmers who basically operate below the radar anyway.

Posted by: AdmiralAckbar | November 19, 2010 8:12 AM | Report abuse

The Food Safety Modernization Act expands govt by giving FDA new powers along with HHS to decide what food is good for you and outlaw other foods. This bill is more harmful than just hurting small growers. Anyone caught salting a potato chip and selling, giving, or eating it may theoretically be given 10 years for it. It effectively gives the govt the ability to define what food is hazardous and therefore implement big brother controls on the types of foods that are approved for consumption. ie outlaw potato chips, salt, caffeine, raw milk, fresh produce, food not grown using Monsanto seeds or whatever the HHS deems health risky.

The following GOP Senators gave the TEA party the finger yesterday by expanding govt:
Barrasso (R-WY) Bribed with $25,350
Collins (R-ME) Bribed with $147,500
Corker (R-TN) Bribed with $291,539
Enzi (R-WY) Bribed with $85,000
Grassley (R-IA) Bribed with $109,850
Gregg (R-NH) Bribed with $26,000
Johanns (R-NE) Bribed with $145,009
LeMieux (R-FL) Bribed with unknown
Lugar (R-IN) Bribed with $149,579
Snowe (R-ME) Bribed with $76,500
Thune (R-SD) Bribed with $207,900
Vitter (R-LA) Bribed with $183,225

Posted by: SupernaturalWitness | November 19, 2010 12:17 PM | Report abuse

Hey, aren't federal agencies restricted to regulating items in interstate commerce? That has always been the first thing an FDA inspector demands to see, evidence of interstate commerce. AFAIK, FDA has no authority over a farmer (or cheese maker) who sells only in state, such as at a farmer's market. Am I wrong?

Posted by: GreenDreams | November 19, 2010 3:02 PM | Report abuse

--*Hey, aren't federal agencies restricted to regulating items in interstate commerce? That has always been the first thing an FDA inspector demands to see, evidence of interstate commerce. AFAIK, FDA has no authority over a farmer (or cheese maker) who sells only in state, such as at a farmer's market. Am I wrong?*--

No, unfortunately, you are not wrong. Run a search on "Wickard v Filburn" for the gory, incomprehensible particulars. And then shudder to know that Filburn is now being used as precedent to rule against some of the legal challenges to Obamacare. What it boils down to is that your decision NOT to purchase a product or service is a decision that affects whatever market that product or service is part of, ergo, not buying something is part of interstate commerce. Yep. The gov can do any stupid thing it wants to, and is going to prove that it can.

Posted by: msoja | November 19, 2010 8:48 PM | Report abuse

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