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No One Wants to Die From Dinner -- Here's a Quick Primer on What's Safe to Eat and Who's Looking Out for Your Health

Thousands are dying every year from food-borne illness and we have a confusing morass of regulations and agencies charged with enforcing them. How to sort out the mess?
 
 
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On the heels of the devastating article in the New York Times about a young woman who paid dearly for the horrifying practices and lack of oversight in the meat industry, the Center for Science in the Public Interest released a list of the top 10 riskiest foods regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

Some of your favorite foods are on this list, including ice cream, berries and leafy greens, with tuna being the most surprising culprit. Though meat contains some of the most virulent contaminants, like the strain of E. coli that almost killed Stephanie Smith, it 's missing from the list, because it isn 't regulated by the FDA. It 's regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Confused yet?

Thousands of people are dying every year from food-borne illness and we have a confusing morass of regulations and agencies charged with enforcing them. Clearly we need a better system, but how to sort out the mess?

There's a lot of action happening now in the realm of food safety. We can only hope that despite the tangled web of Congressional bills, consumer and industry lobbying, cooperation agreements between the FDA and the USDA and crazy-making sideshows like the Leafy Green Marketing Agreement, we will actually end up with safer food, and hopefully not to the detriment of small-scale organic farmers.

Join me for a quick rundown on the most important recent developments in the world of food safety and their possible risks to small farmers.

Congressional Bills:

The House has already passed HR 2749, the Food Safety Enhancement Act, and the Senate is considering Senate Bill 510, the Food Safety Modernization Act.

But funny things sometimes happen on the way to a bill becoming law -- compromises and deal brokering and exemptions and loopholes. The people and industries in power usually get more say than small farmers or consumers.

Both bills only deal with the FDA 's sphere of authority, giving meat and some other freshagricultural products a pass for now, with the exception of some foods that are processed on site on smaller farms.

Value added products, like pickles, jams and preserves will be required to comply with some FDA regulations. This has small farm and good food activists picking up their pitchforks.

Thankfully, this administration's appointees within the USDA and FDA, like Deputy Secretary of the USDA, Kathleen Merrigan, seem more inclined to listen to the concerns of consumers and small farmers. The final House bill included language to protect small producers from onerous regulations and we ended up with an ok bill.

With food borne illness victims testifying in Congress and demanding a final bill before the holidays, things are sure to heat up. Let 's hope victim testimony and articles like the one in the New York Times that put faces to the tragedy of tainted food, will influence Congress to attempt real reform in the final bill.

Cooperation Agreement Between USDA and FDA:

Also this week, it was announced that the FDA would begin working in concert with the USDA to regulate the safety of our food system. At first glance, it seems like a good thing for two food related departments within the government to work together to increase food safety.

Not necessarily. The FDA is charged with inspecting the food supply for safety (among other things), and the USDA is charged with helping farmers market their products (among other things). Can two agencies with very different mandates work together to protect consumers?

 
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