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Food Safety At Any Cost?

By Bryan Hyde

Sitting down to our daily meals is such a commonplace occurrence for most of us that we scarcely give it a second thought.

But the safety of the food we eat is becoming the focal point of an increasingly intense tug of war between federal regulators and food growers and producers at every level—right down to our own gardens.

The issue of food safety is closely tied to other issues that affect how and what we eat. To better understand what’s at stake when it comes to feeding ourselves, a bit of historical perspective is in order.

Nomadic to Agrarian

One of the most significant advancements in human history was the shift that moved mankind from the Nomadic age to the Agrarian age in which planting and harvesting largely replaced hunting and gathering as the principal means of obtaining food.

By creating permanent settlements, usually near a reliable source of water, societies found they could eat better, live better and enjoy far greater comfort than was possible within a nomadic existence.

In his series The Story of Civilization, historian Will Durant claims that the Agrarian Age may well be what made civilization possible since the growing, harvesting and storing of crops allowed mankind an unprecedented amount of leisure time to pursue education, art and culture.

Food was produced locally and wealth was measured by land ownership. Even with the advent of civilization, a large percentage of people still produced roughly half of the food on their table, through gardening, and keeping a milk cow or chickens.

Agrarian to Industrial

This changed drastically with the arrival of the Industrial Age.

The Industrial Age greatly changed the entire landscape of how most people lived their lives. People became more concentrated in larger cities and goods were primarily purchased at central locations.

Mass production and distribution created a huge disconnect in how the masses obtained their food.

Though food was plentiful, and available in greater variety than ever before, many people became completely out of touch with the means of producing food and, in turn, became almost entirely dependent upon others for their daily sustenance.

Purchasing our food at the supermarket became the norm and even a person who lived next door to a farmer or a dairy was far more likely to buy their produce or milk at the store rather than from their neighbor.

Mass production of food led to the creation of agri-business giants like Monsanto and Archer Daniels Midland who along with other large food corporations have become major players in supplying our food.

These companies have also pioneered the use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) including plants, seeds and animals in order to produce larger yields.

This practice has raised concerns ranging from the implications of allowing the companies’ control of seeds as intellectual property to the impact of genetically modified food upon human nutrition.

Industrial to Information

Now the Information Age is overtaking the Industrial Age and we are seeing a trend that steers away from the mass production approach that typified the pinnacle of the Industrial Age.

In the U.S., increasing numbers of people are choosing to “downshift” their lifestyles by leaving large cities and six-figure incomes for a more modest, rural existence that, more often than not, includes having some land and producing a portion of their own food.

Community Supported Agriculture cooperatives (CSA) are catching on in many areas where residents can purchase shares in a small, locally-operated farms that provide them with food produced in their own communities.

Farmers markets and private gardening are also becoming popular means of obtaining locally grown, organically non-genetically modified food within one’s community.

The Dangers of Centralized Food Production

While these local sources of food are gaining acceptance, they are still far from commonplace.

Few of us have encountered the specter of empty store shelves in our grocery stores and yet the system by which those shelves are kept filled is dependent upon carefully timed resupply and distribution that takes place every couple of days.

A truckers’ strike, bad weather or any number of other factors can prevent those store shelves from being replenished and at that point the learning curve then becomes incredibly steep for those who must now figure out how to feed themselves.

The bottom line is that today a vast amount of our population no longer has any concept of what is required to grow, harvest and transport their food from the field to their table.

And in regards to the safeguarding the quality of our food, we have placed that responsibility in the hands of a few state and federal regulatory agencies. But these agencies are now beginning to focus their attention beyond the mass producers of food products and to exercise greater control over small growers and local producers.

Numbers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicate that roughly 5,000 people die from food-borne illness in America annually. But most cases of food contamination are traced to large scale operations and not the small local producers.

So why the increased focus on the local producers?

Is More Regulation the Answer?

When the Food Safety Modernization Act was passed by Congress last December and signed into law earlier this year, it was billed by Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius as the “most significant safety law of the law 100 years.”

But the law has also become a flashpoint of concern for agriculture groups, small food producers and organic farmers who see the law as an unprecedented expansion of federal regulatory power over the ability of people to produce their own food.

In a nation where we always seem to be just one more law away from safety, the enforcement of current food safety regulations have resulted in SWAT teams raiding Amish farmers and organic farmers co-ops over allegations of selling products that haven’t been properly regulated.

The further expansion of federal power in this arena raises the question: Is there such a thing as too much safety?

The 80–page Food Safety Modernization Act moves the Food and Drug Administration out of the realm of mere inspection and into the realm of proactive prevention of food-borne illness.

It expands the enforcement powers for the FDA to where in the event of a food “emergency” or “major contamination” the FDA could place all food and farms under the the Department of Homeland Security; an agency which is mentioned no less than 41 times in the law’s text.

The FDA will have the power to conduct warrant-less searches of the business records of even small growers and producer even if there is no clear evidence that a law has been broken.

Depending upon how the regulations are interpreted and applied, all food production facilities within the U.S may be required to register with the federal government and pay an annual registration fee.

Fines for paperwork infractions can go as high as $500,000 for a single offense. Producers who sell or distribute food outside of government control could be prosecuted as smugglers.

To handle the increase of mandated inspections of food processing facilities and other provisions of the new law, the FDA will be required to hire more inspectors at greater taxpayer expense.

In fairness, the act contains a number of exemptions (under certain conditions) for small farms and very small food producers who sell their wares within a certain geographical radius and have less than $500,000 in annual sales.

But the problem remaining is that the law is written broadly and vaguely enough to give the FDA a great deal of discretion. Can we trust that the FDA will not expand its enforcement efforts to small growers and producers?

How many other regulatory agencies have experienced mission creep as time goes on? It is much easier to prevent abuse of power by limiting government than it is to correct abuses made possible by ambiguity in the laws.

Concerns over the law have prompted Utah lawmakers, among others, to consider legislation that would exempt agriculture produced and purchased within the state of Utah from federal regulations.

State Rep. Bill Wright’s HB365 seeks to exempt Utah growers, both large and small, from federal agricultural regulations on products cultivated and sold within the state.

The Utah Intrastate Commerce Project was launched as a means to protect small farmers who engage in farmers markets or Community Supported Agriculture cooperatives from a harsh federal regulatory climate that places unreasonable costs and mandates on them.

This food sovereignty approach has been also pursued, with varying degrees of success, in Georgia, Wyoming, Vermont, Kentucky and Florida.

Defenders of the Food Safety Modernization Act have expressed reactions ranging from puzzlement to scorn over those who would question the wisdom of the law, but it’s not a matter of having intensive, inflexible regulation of every aspect of the food supply or having to watch our children die from eating tainted, dangerous food.

Local Control

Local growers are easily recognizable within their local markets and have no incentive to produce tainted goods. This is an issue where the correct answer is more likely to be found somewhere in between the two extremes.

Economist and author Tom E. Woods offers a tongue-in-cheek characterization of the regulatory mindset as follows:

“Without [federal regulation], America would be populated by illiterates, half of us would be dead from quack medicine or exploding consumer products, and the other half would lead a feudal existence under the iron fist of private firms that worked them to the bone for a dollar a week.”

The truth, of course, it that even with minimal regulatory oversight, people will not devolve back to cave-dwelling savages by default.

No one wishes to eat unsafe food, but there is much more to this law than simply providing safeguards to the food supply. Whatever actual safety benefits may be found in the law, there is a corresponding economic impact and effect upon personal liberty that must be considered as well.

Even as food prices are steadily rising for American consumers, the prospect of growing more of one’s own food is becoming increasingly more risky due to regulatory concerns.

Food is what sustains life and any law that complicates or exerts control over a person’s access to or ability to produce food must be weighed against the likelihood for abuse by those in power.

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bryanhyde1Bryan Hyde is a radio host, husband, father, graduate student at George Wythe University, and seeker of truth. He does professional voice work through his company One Clear Voice.

Bryan blogs at The White Rose Society and writes firearm reviews for The Truth About Guns. He and his wife Becky are raising their six children in Cedar City, Utah.

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Comments

  1. “It is much easier to prevent abuse of power by limiting government than it is to correct abuses made possible by ambiguity in the laws.” <<< Amen!

    Yet another example of laws intending to "regulate" the major corporations doing more damage than good… and most of the harm affects the individuals, as per usual.

    Thanks for the great article!

  2. A great overview of the concerns and problems with this act. I followed this closely and who the players were on both sides. While the outbreaks recently had more to do with these large industrialized chains and not organic or small growers, it was the large chains that insisted on these monetary fines and annual fees. I seen this as another example of corporate interest controlling the market or making it more difficult to have smaller competitors being able to compete.

    Great article,

    Dale
    Dale recently posted..A Tale of Two Cities- A Paradox of Leadership in Times of Change

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Food Safety At Any Cost?