Last week the New York Times reported on the story of Estrella Family Creamery, an award-winning, very-small-scale producer of raw milk farmstead cheeses in Montesano, Wash. The family faces a Food and Drug Administration ban on its products because the food pathogen listeria has been found in its facilities; when it expressed defiance, the FDA proceeded to stage a raid to seize its entire cheese stock. It's not easy to sort out how large a health risk may be involved (listeria, a widely disseminated form of bacteria, poses a real danger of food poisoning, but no actual illness has been traced to Estrella cheese). I was struck, in any event, by these paragraphs from the Times account:
“If the F.D.A. wanted to shut down the U.S. artisan cheese industry, all they’d have to do is do this environmental surveillance and the odds of finding a pathogen would be pretty great,” said Catherine W. Donnelly, co-director of the Vermont Institute for Artisan Cheese of the University of Vermont, referring to the listeria testing at cheese plants. “Is our role to shut these places down or help them?”
Kurt Beecher Dammeier, owner of Beecher’s Handmade Cheese, an artisan cheesemaker and retailer in Seattle, said the F.D.A. needed to work harder to understand artisans like Ms. Estrella. “The F.D.A. comes from an industrial, zero-defect, highly processed, repeatable perspective, and she comes from a more ancient time of creating with what she gets,” he said. “I’m not sure they can really even have a conversation.”
What lends some urgency to these continuing debates is that that the Senate is expected to vote as early as this week on a bill that will conscript thousands of food producers, processors and "facilities" -- including many that produce or import relatively low-risk foods for specialty, local or ethnic clienteles -- into a best-industrial-practices safety model with extensive recordkeeping requirements and other regulatory burdens. The bill cleared a Senate cloture vote the other day 74-25 and is scheduled for floor consideration Monday.
Much of the bill's press coverage -- as with a USA Today editorial which followed ridiculously slanted coverage in that paper -- appears blithely unaware of the apprehension the bill has raised among small farmers and organic/"locavore" advocates. Some of those fears played out in a battle over an amendment offered by Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) to lessen regulatory burdens on smaller local producers, and strongly backed by (e.g.) foodie guru Michael Pollan. Most big "consumer" groups, however, including Consumers Union and the Center for Science in the Public Interest, lined up against the small farmers and facilities, as did (following their lead) the New York Times, whose editorial managed to denounce the Tester amendment without actually saying what it did, lest its readers (who of course include many foodie/locavore believers) be confused. Moreover, many big agribusiness sectors have actively opposed the Tester amendment as well, on the view that any regulatory regime they have to live with, Uncle Perry with his parsnip patch should have to live with too, even if it means he won't manage to stay in business while they will. Despite that line-up, Senate leaders have now reportedly accepted a watered-down version of the Tester amendment, which does not by any means exempt small producers from federal regulatory control -- they will face plenty of it -- but at least nods toward the principle of "tiering" burdens. (Earlier here, here, here, here, etc.)
The wider question is whether the bill as a whole, with its massive ramp-up of federal regulation to displace both voluntary market choices and state-level regulation, is a good idea. As I observed to TownHall's Jillian Bandes, despite the panic atmosphere generated over the issue in recent years, the best evidence is that the incidence of food poisoning continues to fall, not rise; one reason for the greater press coverage of the issue is that science has gotten better at identifying and tracing the sorts of outbreaks that were happening all along. To some who promote a more intensive regulatory state, the resulting "crisis" presents a welcome opportunity, even though, on these advocates' own terms, the existing array of laws provides ample means by which federal agencies can crack down on food actually shown to pose a hazard.
When the new Congress convenes in January, it will bring to Washington dozens of new lawmakers with more skeptical views about regulation, who may listen with favor to colleagues like Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), who has argued against the pending FSMA as an unjustified power grab. Could that be why Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) is determined to force through the bill during the lame duck session? In this case -- as with the very bad Paycheck Fairness Act, which Republicans managed to stop earlier this month, and the even more appalling “Public Safety Employer-Employee Cooperation Act” to force unionization on local public safety workers -- it's almost as if the point of the post-election session is to push controversial measures that would encounter more resistance if held over to the next Congress. Is this really a proper use of the lame duck?