Slate: Small Potatoes

Most Americans’ Thanksgiving tables will be filled on Thursday with the fruits of a fiercely efficient, competitive, centralized, and industrialized food-production system. That system provides a tremendous bounty year-round, and for cheap. But it comes with a steep price: It can get a lot of us sick. In August, for instance, the Food and Drug Administration ordered the recall of more than 500 million salmonella-contaminated eggs. Though distributed under more than 70 brand names in 26 states, the eggs came from just two companies. Every year, about 250,000 Americans go to hospital with a preventable food-borne disease. About 5,000 die from one.

The Senate is currently considering a sweeping bill that aims to make our food safer. But the makers of “non-industrial” food–small, local, and family farms and processors–are fighting to preserve exemptions to regulations they say could put them out of business.

The bill–the Senate version of legislation the House passed last year–beefs up, as it were, the FDA. For starters, it gives the FDA the power to order companies to recall food. (Currently, and and almost unbelievably, companies make that decision on their own, under government and consumer pressure.) It expands the agency’s ability to write regulations about how and where food is grown. It requires processors to keep more detailed records of what came from where and what happened to it, so that the FDA can trace outbreaks more easily. It gives the FDA more resources for inspectors. And it requires all processors to have hazard-control plans. (One big caveat: The FDA does not oversee most meat and poultry. The Department of Agriculture does that, and its regulations are not changing.)

Though companies like ConAgra produce most of the United States’ food, they do not produce all of it. Indeed, the U.S. food production system is commonly described as “bipolar.” On one hand, there is Big Agribusiness. On the other hand, there are thousands of small, independent, and family-owned farms.

Initially, the Senate bill would have imposed the same rules on just about everybody. And as any small-business owner will eagerly point out, regulatory burdens always fall heavier on smaller companies. America’s largest producer of baby carrots, for example, probably has a team of lawyers on staff to write its hazard plan and plenty of employees to escort FDA inspectors. The guy who sells carrots at the weekly farmer’s market, it’s safe to say, does not.

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