Food Safety Enhancement Act Should Support and Strengthen Local Food Systems, NCGA Advocates

Jun 16, 2009

While the new food safety bill under consideration in Congress improves transparency and traceability in the food system, it does not go far enough to support sustainable food systems and may not prevent the types of food scares that have impacted our food supply in recent years, according to National Cooperative Grocers Association (NCGA).

NCGA is a business services cooperative for 111 consumer-owned food co-ops located throughout the United States.

The Food Safety Enhancement Act of 2009 (FSEA) draft, was introduced in the House of Representatives by Congressman Waxman on May 26, 2009 and is expected to move quickly through the House. Consumers, farmers, and manufacturers alike appear to be for a food safety bill, but does the bill go far enough in making our food supply safer? NCGA suggests it could go farther to strengthen and foster local and regional food systems.

“Our food system is seriously broken, and at first glance, many elements of the FSEA are hard to argue with,” said Robynn Shrader, chief executive officer forNCGA. “For example, the bill would provide the FDA with mandatory recall authority, allow for more frequent inspections and institute traceability requirements so that the source of tainted foods can be more easily tracked.”

“While there are glaring inspection, reporting and accountability problems that need to be firmly addressed, traceability alone will not necessarily protect consumers,” Shrader noted. “In fact, the salmonella case with Peanut Corporation of America exemplifies one of the primary failings of our food system: centralization in which a single entity can sicken so many people geographically dispersed across the country. In most of the recent food scares, centralized processing and distribution have been found to be the source of the problem, not growing and harvesting.”

Reforming our food system should also mean creating systems that support decentralized food processing and distribution, as well as sustainable production methods like organic and regional and local food.

“Consumers are already seeking stronger connection to their food,” Shrader said. “The increased number of farmers’ markets and CSAs (Community Supported Agriculture) points to the renewed interest and value consumers place on buying fresh, local food directly from the producer. There is an implicit accountability for food safety in these direct transactions.

“While buying food directly is not feasible on a day-to-day basis for most consumers,” she said, “they still deserve the same level of safety and accountability from food producers. Small farmers and producers that sell to food cooperatives and other grocers have demonstrated such accountability. That is not to say that no regulation is needed for small farmers and producers, but rather the larger focus of regulation should be directed towards the biggest problem areas that have the widest reach.”

In addition to helping foster local and regional food systems, regulation should also support the environmental and health benefits of sustainable and organic food systems and the benefits of biodiversity.

"Government regulations and requirements tend to be scaled to the largest farmers and producers," Shrader added. "In many cases, the fees and purchases required for compliance are cost prohibitive for small operators—many of which implement practices superior to those required by the FDA—and threaten to put them out of business. Our systems need to support the small family farmers and producers who are already doing the right thing. Our approaches need to be scale neutral, or at least scale appropriate, and promote biodiversity."

“Consumers have the right to safe food,” Shrader concluded. “We need a system that minimizes risks and maintains public confidence in our food supply. And we need to make sure that whatever regulations we put in place are enforceable with appropriate resources allocated towards this end. But, let’s be sure that the regulations we adopt focus on our biggest food safety problems and help foster, or at least do no harm, to the many good practices that exist in our food production system.”