How the new food safety bill might affect you

Today – a year and half after it was passed by the House of Representatives – the Senate passed the Food Safety and Modernization Act (SB 510) by a 73-25 margin. The bill still has to be brought into line with the House’s version before President Obama can sign it into law—but its basic provisions have already won praise from safe-food advocates as “the most important food-safety legislation in a generation.”

The bill would produce a major shift of regulatory power, granting the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) sweeping new powers to oversee farming and track and recall food products—while also giving the agency the authority to conduct more safety inspections on farms, slaughterhouses, processing plants, etc.

So what does the legislation mean to the average American consumer? Here’s a rundown of the direct effects it may have on all of us:

Slightly higher food costs: Critics of the bill, both on the left and the right, have argued that food producers will pass on the higher costs of stricter regulation to consumer, and there’s a chance that could happen. However, the bill does exempt farms making less than $500,000 per year–and supporters of the bill contend that the FDA’s enhanced oversight will likely save food makers the higher costs associated with removing contaminated food from the marketplace after the fact.

Selling and sharing from your small garden: Opponents have also suggested that the bill would basically outlaw the sale and distribution of fruits and vegetables grown in backyard gardens. This is not the case. As SB 510 is currently worded, small growers who sell their goods at food co-ops, farmer’s markets, roadside stands, etc., wouldn’t have to register with the FDA– though they would still have to comply with whatever state and local food laws are in effect in their area.

Enhanced public health: According to Democratic Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin, who co-sponsored the bill, 76 million Americans are stricken with some sort of preventable foodborne illness each year, resulting in more than 325,000 hospitalizations and 5000 deaths. Advocates of the new bill say that eliminating these outbreaks would save lives—as well as millions in health care costs–each year.

Peace of mind: In the wake of recent recalls of eggs, spinach, pistachios, peanut butter and milk, many Americans are increasingly worried about serious health risks from large-scale corporate agriculture. Of all the world’s industrialized nations, the United States has been among the most resistant to making changes to its food safety laws. Sen. Tom Harkin, one of the bill’s co-sponsors, recently argued that the bill “couldn’t be more urgent or absurdly overdue,” adding, “It is shocking to think that the last comprehensive overhaul of America’s food-safety system was in 1938 — more than seven decades ago.”

A functional Congress: For the first time in recent memory, the bill fostered a strong bipartisan effort between Republicans and Democrats to do something about a problem that touches just about every American. According to New York Times reporters Gardiner Harris and William Neuman some of the Senate staffers from both parties involved in the negotiations had never even met previous to working on SB 510.

“The group bonded over snacks: specifically, Starburst candies from a staff member of Senator Mike Enzi, a Wyoming Republican, and jelly beans from a staff member of Senator Richard Durbin, an Illinois Democrat,” Harris and Neuman write. “And in the midst of negotiations, the negotiators — nearly all women — took a field trip to a nearby food market so that a Republican staff member could teach the Democrats how to buy high-quality steaks.”

So safer food makes for happier, healthy bodies–and greater bipartisanship. Perhaps the next Slurpee Summit in Washington should feature wheatgrass smoothies.

The Associated Press