Debate over the Food Safety Modernization Act reflects a broader discussion about the American food supply. While tweaks to the regulatory system could improve things, a shift away from industrial agriculture and lobbying toward a more consumer-driven approach should be the long term goal.
Government regulation of food production encourages centralization. Government focuses on enforcing minimum standards, not encouraging best practices. It requires costly procedures that drive small producers out of the market without necessarily improving the quality of food.
The centralization of food production supports business models in which close quarters and high volume promote the spread of disease. When the food supply is put into the hands of big corporations with big lobbying bankrolls, it means placing trust in the effectiveness of regulators and in the reliability of corporations to be clean when nobody is looking. And when tainted food slips past quality control the reliance on a few large providers means that one bad production run will reach more customers in more places.
Any regulatory regime will be implemented by the Food and Drug Administration, a federal bureaucracy with connections to large producers. A nice illustration of the revolving door between government and business lobbies is provided by Judith McGeary of the Farm and Ranch Freedom Alliance, in comments on grist.org: “FDA is staffed by people who come from within the industrial food system, many of whom are looking to get jobs in that food system when they leave the agency.”
Who has more access to regulators — small producers or food factories with big money and dedicated legal departments?
The FDA, which stands to gain power from the Food Safety Modernization Act, has previously demonstrated a tendency to place bureaucratic adherence to the rules over the public interest. As pharmaceutical researcher Dr. Mary Ruwart has written, for years after it was known folic acid supplementation reduced the risk of birth defects, the FDA continued to prohibit vitamin companies from advertising this fact, effectively censoring important nutritional information.
It is certainly reasonable to call for more oversight of food. What you put into your body on a daily basis will impact the quality of your life, and as things are now food safety recalls are likely to occur only after people have been infected.
But greater oversight does not have to mean greater government involvement. Unlike the FDA, non-government regulatory and oversight companies can go out of business if they do a bad job. Competition means viable alternatives are available if one agency proves to be as bad as the current system. And non-government regulation does not solely entail corporations focused on maximizing profits for stockholders. Cooperative testing and inspection agencies could be created. With today’s rapid spread of information, it could easily become public knowledge if a producer was found to be negligent. And the most intimate form of oversight is when community agriculture brings neighbors together to ensure quality food.
Unfortunately, a government privatization program would most likely hand monopoly privilege to a corporation, making regulation more profitable but not more effective. Any call for extensive overhaul would have to insist on more competition and less centralization.
An instructive nutritional improvement is the rising consumption of organic food. While it is not mandatory to produce, market, or purchase organic food, its sales are rapidly growing. Government certification and oversight of labeled organics has been called into question, and reputation is important to a company’s success. Choosing organic is an issue of personal priorities, which are influenced not only by educational and marketing efforts, but perhaps more importantly by monetary needs. Any grassroots overhaul of America’s food production should treat broadening access to quality food as a top priority.
In the short term, writing new rules into the government-business regime can make products safer. But don’t look for an ultimate solution from the system that created the problem in the first place.