Stricter Food Safety Regulations Mean Fewer Local Food Options

It's time for key local-food advocates to admit-loudly-that strict food-safety regulations are not the answer.


Last week I appeared on a HuffPost Live segment that focused in part on an Obama administration proposal to merge the food-safety roles of the FDA and USDA into a single new agency—a topic I wrote about here last week—to be housed within the Department of Health and Human Service (HHS).

I appeared on the segment alongside fellow commentators Christopher Waldrop of the Consumer Federation of America and Robert Brackett of the Institute for Food Safety and Health. CFA opposes the Obama administration's proposal, saying it doesn't go far enough. Instead, the group supports a bill now before Congress that would create an independent agency operating outside of the HHS umbrella. While IFSH doesn't appear to take a formal position on the Obama administration proposal, two of IFSH's three key constituents happen to be the food industry and the FDA itself.

After I expressed skepticism over the proposed reform on HuffPost Live in part because small, local food producers had been threatened by FDA rules the agency proposed under the Food Safety Modernization Act, and I feared a new agency would likely dream up further threats. But Brackett said he could care less if that was the case.

"Having a robust food safety system in place should apply to the large companies as well as to the small companies," said Brackett, who previously served in top regulatory positions with both the FDA and the nation's top grocery lobby.

Other noted food-safety advocates echo Brackett's position.

"I think everyone producing food–no exceptions–should be using science-based food safety procedures with testing," Marion Nestle told Food Safety News in 2009.

But small competitors typically can't comply with regulations written for large producers. That means big food producers get bigger, and smaller ones disappear. That consolidation is then used to justify the need for more stringent regulations, which leads to more consolidation, which leads to calls for stricter regulations. It's a death spiral that is crushing small, local food producers, as local-food advocates have lamented, sometimes in pleas to liberal allies.

While dueling food-safety advocates and local-food supporters are often found on the political left, I've described a similar disconnect over the years among those on the political right. As I've noted before, many Republicans are quick to suspend their purported devotion to the free market on any issue pertaining to farmers and subsidies. In fact, I've written, Republicans are typically the worst offenders when it comes to doling out farm subsidies to businesses in need of no handout.

That coziness between politicians and business is evident in the push for stricter food-safety regulations, too. That food-safety advocates whistle the same tune as large food producers on the issue of food safety is a fact many of those advocates don't like to acknowledge. In fact, when I noted this reality in a 2013 column on FSMA, two writers from the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a group that evidences the phenomenon, took issue with my claims, protesting that a regulatory partnership between government, advocates, and big business was as rare as a Yeti sighting. (Hardly.)

If there are benefits to be gained from buying local food, more stringent food-safety regulations impede those benefits from being realized.

But where does this partnership between government, food-safety advocates, and big business leave the aforementioned "local food movement" championed by many others on the left—including leading thinkers like Michael Pollan?

Pollan may have thought he could have it all.

Back in 2010, Pollan lauded FSMA, saying "it promises to achieve several important food safety objectives, greatly benefiting consumers without harming small farmers or local food producers."

Clearly, that's not the case. But, according to his website, that was the last Pollan had to say on food safety and local food.

With FSMA's disastrous rollout, and the calls by peers like Nestle to strengthen it further, what can he say? Disconnect between staunch supporters of rigid, process-oriented food safety regulations and advocates for local food is palpable. Their goals are simply at loggerheads.

The Obama administration has tried to placate both sides. But—whether they care to admit it or not—the ongoing debate over increasing food-safety regulations and expanding local food options pits heavyweight food-policy experts like Nestle against peers like Pollan. Victory for the former would mean fewer small producers and fewer choices for consumers. I think it's incumbent on local food supporters like Pollan to argue that point.