Balancing Food Safety and Burdens on Small Farms

Vol. 28 No. 2

Ms. Beyranevand is the associate director of the Center for Agriculture and Food Systems and an associate professor of law at Vermont Law School.

In response to the concerns raised by journalists, like Upton Sinclair in The Jungle, and our country’s first group of true food safety advocates, Congress enacted the Pure Food and Drugs Act in 1906 to ensure the safety and purity of the food supply in the United States. The law represented the nation’s initial sweeping attempt at food safety regulation and later evolved into the current Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FFDCA), 21 U.S.C. §§ 301–399. While some might argue that the regulation of our food system has come a long way from the horrors described by journalists, food scientists, and advocates in the early 1900s, the United States currently spends approximately $152 billion per year in aggregate health care costs to address foodborne illness, according to Dr. Robert Scharff, a former Food and Drug Administration (FDA) economist. See Robert L. Scharff, Health Related Costs from Foodborne Illness in the United States (Mar. 3, 2010). Beyond the economic costs, the FDA estimates that one in six Americans will suffer a foodborne illness, and, of those people, 130,000 individuals will be hospitalized with 3,000 people dying as a result of contracting the illness. See Food and Drug Administration, FDA Proposes New Food Safety Standards for Foodborne Illness Prevention and Food Safety (Jan. 4, 2013). Some suggest these statistics reflect the problems inherent to our highly industrialized food system, which relies heavily on the mass production and importation of food creating apparent issues regarding traceability and accountability. According to the most recent figures of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), the United States imported almost $106 billion worth of food in 2012. See USDA Economic Research Service, Summary Data on Food Import Values for 14 Food Categories, Annual Data Since 1999 (Mar. 29, 2013). Yet, the FDA estimates that it inspected less than 1 percent of those goods. See FDA Consumer Health Information, Ensuring the Safety of Imported Products: Q&A with David Elder (Oct. 19, 2010).

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