Safe Food Beats Profitability

In the recent (and strangely productive) lame-duck session of Congress, Democrats pushed through the Food Safety Modernization Act, which will lead to vital reforms in our nation’s food system now that President Obama has signed it into law. The bill grants important new powers to the Food and Drug Administration, finally giving it additional power to prevent the outbreaks of disease and death that are a direct result of the way we produce food in the United States.

The Food Safety Modernization Act, by the historical standards of congressional “action,” is nothing short of groundbreaking. It is the first significant piece of legislation to reform our nation’s food safety system since 1938.

A lot has changed since then in terms of food production in the United States. Perhaps the most significant change has been the advent of the factory farm, which since 1938 has gone from not existing to now producing over 99 percent of the meat we consume. Factory farms cram tens of thousands of animals into spaces so small that they cannot extend their limbs. They live underneath and on top of one another. Sick animals go unnoticed because it is simply an impossible task to sort them out. Aside from the animal welfare argument entirely, however, is the safety of food that Americans are going to eat. The truth about the factory farm is that it’s the perfect breeding ground for deadly diseases.

Because the government has not acted to reform food safety regulations since 1938, the factory farm method of producing meat has developed almost entirely without government restriction or regulation of any kind. Hence the numerous outbreaks of disease that have led to tons and tons of recalled meat (and other products) and the deaths of hundreds of Americans.

You and I have all experienced the effects of our unregulated food system. Remember the last time you had what is colloquially called the 24-hour flu? It wasn’t the flu. Chances are you had a minor case of food poisoning resulting from eating something that was contaminated. For most people, this is the worst of it. But many Americans have lost their lives because large companies produced and sold them food that was not safe to eat — and in some cases this was done knowingly.

The Food Safety Modernization Act gives the FDA the power to step in and prevent these outbreaks. It mandates more frequent inspections of food production facilities and allows the government to recall food (or prevent it from ever going out) without the cooperation of the violating company. It provides funding for the creation of an entirely new system to track produce and determine exactly where any food unfit to eat originated. It allows the FDA to fine repeat violators for mandated re-inspections and even shut down facilities that perform poorly on food safety inspections. It also guarantees employee protection for those workers who speak out about conditions at the factories that employ them. And, according to the Congressional Budget Office, it does all of this at a total cost of only $15 per American citizen.

This seems to be one of those “no-brainer” issues that everyone can get behind, but in an initial vote on the bill, 25 Senate Republicans voted against it. Then, once it became clear that the measure would pass regardless of their opposition, all 25 approved the measure so as not to appear that they were totally fine with people getting sick and dying so that large agribusiness firms wouldn’t have to be inspected every now and then. In the House, 119 representatives opposed the bill (shout-out to Rep. John Campbell, the House Republican that represents Irvine, for breaking with the majority of his party to support the bill). The GOP still has not given up the fight, by the way; although it is a long shot, several Republican leaders are pushing to prevent the FDA from receiving the funding needed to implement the new restrictions.

How is anyone opposed to strict and thorough regulation of the companies that produce the food that you and I need in order to feed our families? Recent deadly outbreaks of swine flu, E. coli and salmonella have all been traced to factory farms and food production facilities right here in the United States — not in Mexico, as Fox News will tell you. Our food system, while still one of the best in the world, is fundamentally broken. It seems unbelievable that elected officials — almost all of them in the Republican Party — would oppose a bill that will literally prevent the deaths of some of their constituents.
The only half-legitimate argument on the other side of the debate — that “the market” will take care of itself if we just deregulate and let it do its thing — has already been disproven. If “the market” (whatever the term even means) had the self-discipline to regulate itself sufficiently to ensure food safety, the previously mentioned outbreaks never would have occurred. The unhappy truth is that the large corporations in charge of food production are fine with an American dying every now and then from eating their products, so long as they can operate in as profitable a business model as possible.

While the Food Safety Modernization Act is far from perfect, and we will probably still see an outbreak here and there, this is a necessary step toward forcing food producers to act more responsibly. Because of this new legislation, all of us will now be eating safer food than we have in the past. We would be wise to support future legislation that provides additional regulatory power to the government so that food safety can be ensured.

Charles Hicks is a fourth-year religious studies major. He can be reached at cbhicks@uci.edu.