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Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Food Safety on the Farm

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 certain naturally occurring contaminants.

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), which was later traced back to fresh peppers from a farm in Mexico. In May 2010, a large-scale recall of more than 550 million shell eggs from two farms in Iowa was linked to concerns about a nationwide increase in Salmonella Enteritidis (SE) infections. Most recently, in November 2010 through January 2011, more than 100 people in 18 states were sickened from Salmonella-contaminated sprouts linked to an Illinois organic farm.

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 December 2010, the 111
th Congress passed comprehensive food safety legislation (FDA Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), P.L. 111-353). This newly enacted law is focused on foods regulated by FDA and amended FDA’s existing structure and authorities, in particular the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FFDCA; 21 U.S.C. §§ 301 et seq.). FSMA is the largest expansion of FDA’s food safety authorities since the 1930s; it does not directly address meat and poultry products under the jurisdiction of USDA. The provisions in the law that could have the most direct effect on on-farm activity, especially for produce growers, could be the establishment of new standards for produce safety. Other requirements that could affect on-farm activity are facility registration requirements, records access and/or inspection requirements, food traceability requirements, hazard analysis and risk-based preventive controls, and targeting of inspection resources. The 112th Congress will likely provide oversight over how the law is implemented, including FDA’s coordination with other federal agencies. Implementation of the law will depend largely on discretionary appropriations, and some have questioned whether funding is available in the current budgetary climate.

Date of Report: January 18, 2011
Number of Pages: 27
Order Number: RL34612
Price: $29.95

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