(CNSNews.com) – Major farm groups are concerned that a bill in Congress intended to shore-up food-safety guidelines could actually make it harder for some livestock and poultry producers to guarantee safe food.
A panel of national agricultural experts testified before the House Committee on Agriculture last week about the potential dangers of food-safety legislation currently under discussion in the House.
The current version of the Food Safety Enhancement Act, sponsored by Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), would give the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) oversight of livestock farms across the country, thus requiring all ranchers and farmers to meet new regulations, as dictated by the FDA.
Currently the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and state authorities oversee the raising of livestock. The Food and Drug Administration only regulates meat once it has been processed from its animal source.
The farm groups complained that the bill would give the FDA authority to oversee farms and set standards for livestock producers, as well as require producers to pay for inspections.
“The bill must contain clear legislative language ensuring that FDA is not granted the authority to regulate livestock on-farm by mandating production standards for cattlemen across the country,” Sam Ives of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association told members of the committee in testimony Thursday.
This clarification would preserve the existing system, which preserves the USDA’s jurisdiction over livestock regulation.
“Live animals are not ‘food’ until the point of processing, which is why this bill needs to clarify that the FDA does not have regulatory authority on our farms, ranches or feedlots,” Ives said.
“Cattle producers support language that explicitly excludes livestock and poultry from the definition of ‘food’ under this bill and the Federal Food Drug and Cosmetic Act (FFDCA). This important change is essential to resolve the ambiguity to keep the more than century-old and successful animal health and meat, poultry and egg inspection a functioning partnership between USDA and State authorities,” Ives also said.
The FDA, which has long been under-staffed, has been pushed to the limits with several major outbreaks of food-borne illness in the last few years. The most recent example was in June, when 72 people fell ill after consuming Nestle chocolate-chip cookie dough that was contaminated with E. coli. Other recent cases have involved major recalls of contaminated spinach, peppers, peanut butter and beef.
Carol Tucker-Foreman of the Consumer Federation of America pointed out that the FDA usually reacts to food safety situations rather than preventing them.
“The agency’s program is almost entirely reactive,” Tucker-Foreman said. “FDA often doesn’t act until after there are confirmed reports of illness and death. That system doesn’t work in a global marketplace where food is mass produced and travels around the world in a matter of hours. By the time we know a contaminated product is on the market, it is too late to keep people from getting sick.”
Since the House Agriculture Committee passed the bill and sent it to the Energy and Commerce Committee, some changes have been made to quell the fears of farmers. The FDA will not for instance, be allowed to make on-the-spot inspections.
“In recent weeks some concerns have been raised about H.R. 2749, many on the Internet, suggesting almost apocalyptic outcomes for farmers if the bill becomes law,” Tucker-Foreman said in her testimony before the Agriculture Committee.
“While our groups originally had some disagreement about the impact that the discussion draft might have had on small farmers, the Energy and Commerce Committee amendments went a long way to addressing concerns that provisions would disadvantage small farmers, especially organic farmers,” she also said.
She maintained, however, that any jurisdiction given to the FDA needs to be explicitly limited in order to meet farmers’ interests.
The American Farm Bureau Federation, the American Meat Institute, Consumer Federation of America, National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, National Farmers Union, National Turkey Federation, Nick’s Organic Farm and Taylor Farms were represented at the hearing.
Of those eight, only Tucker-Foreman of the Consumer Federation of America said she would support the bill as it currently stands.