Federal Law Will Determine What You Eat

Ben Tettlebaum

Since the founding of the United States, law and policy (or sometimes the lack of either) have shaped what we eat. To most of us — food consumers — changes that law and policy bring to our food system are subtle. We may realize our favorite drinks now have high-fructose corn syrup but not connect that change to the influence of a particular law or policy. True, myriad factors determine what we eat, but law and policy have particularly powerful effects — sometimes beneficial, sometimes destructive — on our food system.

The fingerprints of the law are all around us. How we drive to work, how many people fit into an auditorium, how we invest our money, what we discharge into the ocean — legal architecture sculpts the contours of how our society functions. The law is the DNA of our democracy. It is deeply woven into every aspect of our nation, evolving from generation to generation. Though sometimes invisible, it often injects itself prominently into our daily lives. Just as often, we the people are unaware of that change until it is too late. Though the task is not easy, the law offers us — the public — an opportunity to shape those changes. How? By voting, by talking with our elected officials and policymakers, and — when an administrative agency proposes a new regulation — by telling the agency what it should do.

As I have posted many times before, the federal Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) is the biggest overhaul of our nation’s food safety system in 75 years. The safety of our produce — the focus of FSMA — is critical. Ensuring safe fruits and vegetables, however, also means ensuring thriving family farms and sustainable practices, both environmentally and economically. FSMA threatens the viability of our locally produced food and the farms that grow it.

As I wrote last week, FDA addressed many of our concerns in the supplemental Produce Safety Rule and Preventive Controls Rule issued on September 29. FDA has never regulated on-farm activities before and has little experience with farmers. The rules as originally drafted took a one-size-fits-all approach, mostly favoring industrial-scale operations, largely because of powerful lobbying from that part of the agricultural sector. I can’t stress enough how rare a victory it is to get a federal administrative agency like FDA to make significant changes to a proposed rule, and seek public comment on those changes before finalizing the rule. FDA listened. But they had something to hear only because we the people spoke up.

Farmers were one of the most vocal groups commenting to FDA. As a group directly regulated by the proposed rules, they have a tremendous stake in the outcome and can offer real expertise to FDA. But the FSMA rules will have profound effects far beyond those regulated. Each one of us, as food consumers, will see and feel the impact.

But when? This is key. The rules will not take effect for several years (though industry is already gearing up for compliance). By the time most consumers see the potential impact of the rules — such as less locally grown produce available — the window of opportunity for taking action will have passed. Such is the way with many laws that profoundly affect how we live.

With FSMA, the public was instrumental in leading to its passage. Concern and fear over several high-profile fatalities and illnesses due to contaminated produce led Congress and the President to act. But staying engaged throughout the entire law-making process to create an outcome that is beneficial to the health of our society and our environment is a complex and arduous task that requires dedicated attention. That’s why groups like CLF are working hard on this issue — to let you know what you can do before the window of opportunity closes.

So here’s your chance to add your voice to shaping laws that are structuring the way our food system will operate for years to come. We have until December 15 to support the beneficial changes FDA made to its proposed rules and recommend changes where needed. We’re still reviewing the supplemental drafts. Soon, we’ll have more detailed information to help you submit a comment. In the meantime, learn more about the rules.

Like it or not, the law plays a large role in determining what we eat. You can help ensure that it is healthy and sustainable for all of us.

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