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Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Food Safety on the Farm: Federal Programs and Legislative Action

Renée Johnson
Specialist in Agricultural Policy

Foodborne illness-causing bacteria on farms can enter the food supply unless preventive measures are in place to reduce them, either prior to or after harvest. Also of potential risk to the food supply are pesticide residues, animal drugs, and naturally occurring contaminants such as aflatoxin.

There is interest in examining on-farm practices, given continued major outbreaks of foodborne illness involving both domestically produced and imported foods. An example is the case in April-July 2008, when more than 1,000 persons in more than 40 states and Canada were found to be infected with the same unusual strain of bacteria (Salmonella Saintpaul). Most recently, in May 2010, a large-scale recall of more than 550 million shell eggs has been linked to concerns about a nationwide increase in Salmonella Enteritidis (SE) infections.

Food safety experts agree that an effective, comprehensive food safety system should include consideration of potential hazards at the farm level. However, opinions differ on the need for more stringent, government-enforced safety standards for farms, as exist for processors and others in the food chain. This question and others, such as the potential cost of new interventions to producers, taxpayers, and consumers, are at issue as Congress debates food safety legislation.

The lead federal food safety agencies are the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) within the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), which regulates major species of meat and poultry and some egg products, and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), which regulates virtually all other foods. Generally, these agencies’ regulatory oversight of foods begins after the farm gate, at slaughter establishments and food handling and manufacturing facilities. However, various activities of these and other federal agencies involved in assuring the safety of the food supply can, and do, have an impact on how farms and ranches raise food commodities.

In the 111
th Congress, comprehensive food safety bills are progressing that could affect farmers and ranchers. Wide-ranging legislation (H.R. 2749) passed the House in June 2009. The Senate also has a comprehensive bill (S. 510), which is pending further floor action. The House-passed bill would require the establishment of new standards for the production of some fruits, vegetables, nuts, and fungi. Other provisions of H.R. 2749 that focus more broadly on food safety, such as requiring a new food tracing system and expanding authority for access to records, also could impact on-farm practices. Provisions in S. 510—including a section requiring produce safety standards—also would affect on-farm production.

As both bills have progressed, Congress has continued to modify provisions to address the potential effects of proposed food safety requirements on small farms and food processors, and also on organic, direct-to-market, and sustainable farming operations. For example, although the House Energy and Commerce Committee amended H.R. 2749 to address small-farm concerns, the version passed by the full House in June 2010 contained additional changes addressing agricultural interests. Similarly, the version of S. 510 reported by the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee in December 2009 was further modified to address small-farm concerns as part of a substitute manager’s amendment agreed to by Senate leaders that was released in August 2010. Despite these changes, farm groups continue to push for additional changes to further address these concerns.

Date of Report: October 5, 2010
Number of Pages: 25
Order Number: RL34612
Price: $29.95

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