Congress has a full legislative plate to clear before the lame-duck session ends, including a measure that would vastly expand federal regulation of the food supply. But that scheme -- a costly and unwarranted intrusion -- is best scrapped.
Proponents tout the so-called Food Safety Modernization Act as the salvation of our supposedly imperiled food supply. It would authorize the FDA to dictate how farmers grow fruits and vegetables, including rules governing soil, water, hygiene, packing, temperatures, and even what animals may roam which fields and when. It would also increase inspections of food “facilities” and tax them to do so.
In fact, Americans enjoy the safest, most abundant and affordable food supply on the planet. The incidence rate of food-borne illness has declined by a third in the past decade alone. What risks remain won’t be remedied by intermittent visits by regulators or new legions of FDA bureaucrats shuffling through piles of additional paperwork.
Nor would this crackdown fill what gaps exist in the food-safety system. Meat, poultry and dairy products -- the most common sources of food-borne illness -- are regulated by the Department of Agriculture and aren’t addressed in this bill.
Expanding the FDA’s regulatory reach would require additional spending of $1.4 billion between 2011 and 2015, according to the Congressional Budget Office. The costs to the private sector have not been calculated, but likely would reach into the hundreds of millions of dollars annually.
The measure was approved by the House some 17 months ago, but languished in the Senate until Nov. 30, when it passed by a vote of 73 to 25. However, a fortuitous blunder by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has contaminated the legislation. Unlike the Senate bill, the House version of the bill does not levy new taxes on food “facilities.” But the constitution calls for all tax provisions to originate in the House. Consequently, Reid must either finagle a legislative fix in a big hurry or admit defeat.
Truth be told, there is no food safety crisis. Even if there were, beefing up the FDA’s already excessive powers would harm consumers more than protect them. History has repeatedly shown that science and technology have delivered the greatest advances in food safety. Pasteurization, water disinfection and retort canning, for example, freed consumers from food transmission of botulism, typhoid fever, tuberculosis and cholera.
And it was the food industry, not regulators, that first standardized quality grading and pathogen elimination processes. More recently, irradiation and bioengineering have also helped to destroy pathogens and extend product shelf-life. Were it not for alarmist opposition to both, consumer acceptance would likely be greater -- bringing with it broader health benefits.
Market forces such as competition, brand-name value, monitoring by financial markets and insurers, and common law are also powerful drivers of food safety. All would suffer under the compliance costs and paperwork burdens that broader FDA powers would impose.
The bill has enjoyed bipartisan support. But if lawmakers are vested in heeding the undeniable message sent by Americans last month, they will take note of the facts about the nation’s food system. Americans don’t want and cannot afford still more unnecessary regulation and expansion of government.
Diane Katz is a research fellow in regulatory policy at The Heritage Foundation.
A regulatory policy expert, Diane Katz is a research fellow in The Heritage Foundation's Roe Institute for Economic Policy.