Local agencies comment on Food Safety Modernization Act

January 12, 2011

By Susan Johnson
Copy Editor

President Barack Obama signed the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act  Jan. 4, upon his return from his Hawaiian vacation. After a long, contentious battle, the bill, originally known as S.510, went through several revisions, and was finally approved by Congress Dec. 21, 2010.

The Rock River Times (TRRT) solicited comments from several organizations that could shed some light on the likely local impact of the new legislation.

Sue Fuller, public information officer at the Winnebago County Health Department, sent us the following statement: “The Winnebago County Health Department supports the new U.S. Food Safety bill. This will help to reduce the estimated 48 million Americans who are sickened each year by food-borne illness, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control,”  said Larry Swacina, director for the Center for Environmental Health Improvement, Winnebago County Health Department.

Melaney Arnold, communications manager at the Illinois Department of Public Health, told us: “The Illinois Department of Public Health supports the Food Safety Modernization Act and its provisions. However, the Department is awaiting direction from the U.S. FDA for implementation of the legislation as most of the requirements rest with the FDA. There are still many questions surrounding the budget, additional staffing, and what support the FDA will seek from its state partners, that must be answered before the Illinois Department of Public Health can weigh in on the impact the legislation will have in Illinois.”

A. Bryan Endres is associate professor of Agricultural Law at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign. He told TRRT: “I think this is the most significant piece of food safety legislation since 1938, which was the original passage of the Food, Drug and Cosmetics Act. That’s our baseline food safety protection statute. When I looked at the impact on agriculture, it’s relatively small for the state of Illinois because it really is not impacting commodity grain production. It really has very little impact on agricultural production here in the United States. Where it is making an impact is on the production of fresh fruits and vegetables and the food processing industry. In Illinois… where I’ve done a lot of my research—on local production of fruits and vegetables for direct marketing such as farmers’ markets or farm stand sales or commodity-operated agriculture, and there was originally some concern that the bill would impact those individuals by requiring them to put in place comprehensive food safety measures.

“But there was an amendment to the bill in the Senate—the Tester amendment. In my view, that was a very important development which is exempting these individuals that have sales under $500,000 a year and sell over 50 percent direct to consumers. It has to meet both of those criteria. What it’s trying to do is eliminate any regulatory changes on the small farmers. Looking at the potential food safety impact on these individuals, it’s much smaller than [on] someone who’s marketing lettuce that is distributed nationwide.”

Based on his experience as a lawyer, Endres commented on the 1942 Wickard vs. Filburn case. “The Wickard vs. Filburn case is just a process for the scope of the Commerce Clause,” he said. “That was decided—what was the power of the government in World War II, when you had all sorts of production mandates to feed the troops. It’s just a different situation. To talk about Wickard vs. Filburn in the context of the Food Safety Act is—in my view, it is certainly in the law but not what the food safety bill is about. The food safety bill is about correcting jurisdictional gaps that were present in our existing food safety system where the government lacked authority to prevent food-borne illness in certain segments of the food production system, and I think, as the nature of the food supply has changed since 1938, in that if you look at our national food distribution system where things are not grown outside of town, or things are not grown in Illinois and shipped to bordering states—it’s a national and international system. If we go to our local supermarket, you can tell now the country of origin on the label. You can tell where a lot of the produce is coming from, so I focus on production. That is the largest jurisdictional gap that this bill will fill and provide some sort of government oversight to prevent food-borne illness.”

From the Jan. 12-18, 2011 issue

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