Now comes the hard part.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has for four years been writing the regulations that will put in force the Food Safety Modernization Act.
The job involved many revisions in which industry members and university researchers politely tapped FDA authors on the shoulder and reminded them that they were providing solutions where no problems existed.
For example, the use of spent grains from breweries to feed cattle has been a common practice for centuries, yet the FDA initially felt the urge to interject expensive new requirements that made no sense and accomplished nothing.
The regulation of irrigation water in the propagation of onions was another area in which the FDA was politely reminded that no problems existed.
Now the results of all that work will come to fruition and, presumably, make the food Americans eat safer. Nearly every week the news carries reports of an outbreak of E. coli or some other problem at restaurants or processors. Though many are linked to food handling problems, some can be traced back to the farms where the produce was grown.
To improve food safety, Congress now has to provide the money for the FSMA.
The Congressional Budget Office initially estimated that implementing the FSMA would cost nearly $120 million a year.
That is a bargain. If the rules are effectively implemented, outbreaks can be avoided, the public will be protected and growers will be minimally impacted from recalls.
But other aspects of the regulations are disconcerting. While the FDA has aimed high in its attempts to assure food safety, it appears the agency has a long way to go.
At a recent meeting, even simple questions from farmers appeared to stump agency representatives.
Mateusz Perkowski, a reporter for the Capital Press, cited two questions that came up:
• If several farms draw their water from the same stream, one farmer asked, can they collectively monitor bacteria levels instead of each paying for separate tests?
• How can a grower establish a baseline for bacteria levels in irrigation water, asked another, if he leases different parcels of land each year?
Such questions will be referred to a Technical Assistance Network that will be formed from the FDA officials who wrote the regulations.
FDA officials also mentioned that they would talk with food safety auditors who already inspect farms and other operations to coordinate efforts.
They also said state departments of agriculture will do the heavy lifting when it comes to implementing the regulations.
This is good, but with a caveat.
It is good because state departments of agriculture are intimately familiar with the practices farmers follow. Better than anyone else, they will understand how the regulations should be followed on the farm.
The caveat involves money. If Congress does not adequately fund implementation of the new rules, all bets are off.
FDA has requested nearly $110 million for the next fiscal year to do that. Now Congress must decide whether the food safety law it wrote will be an effective tool for helping to assure food safety or it will be a shell that sounds good but in reality does not live up to its promise.
The regulations cannot be implemented in a piecemeal fashion. To do that would give some sectors of agriculture an advantage over others because of the differences in the costs of meeting the requirements.
“We can’t expect it to happen as an unfunded mandate,” Michael Taylor, FDA deputy commissioner for foods and veterinary medicine, told those at the recent meeting.
He is correct. Congress needs to make sure its new law is adequately funded at the federal and state levels.
Otherwise, FSMA will be just another half-baked congressional initiative that sounds good but doesn’t accomplish much.
Much is at stake with the FSMA — the well-being of U.S. agriculture and the well-being of 319 million Americans.