Food Safety Bill Important to Nebraska's Health and Livelihood

By Senator Mike Johanns The livelihood of Nebraska's agricultural producers depends upon consumer confidence in the entire food safety system. If this confidence is lost in any part of the system - from production to the produce aisle - our state's number one industry, agriculture, pays a heavy price. As Secretary of Agriculture, I witnessed firsthand how outbreaks and scares of food-borne illnesses devastated certain food industries and their producers. To help safeguard against future outbreaks and panics in our food system, I voted for the Senate food safety bill last week. I do not like legislation that expands the scope of government. My voting record clearly demonstrates this. Yet if we cannot demonstrate in a convincing way that we can ensure the safety of our food supply, our producers suffer, families suffer, and our economy suffers. A food outbreak cripples the demand for food products and this hurts our producers, many of whom have nothing to do with the processing and distribution of their crops and livestock, where contamination often occurs. If taking action means we give producers the assurance and consumers the confidence that our food system is healthy, that is something I support. In 2006, when our spinach supply became tainted with E. coli, the industry's recall process was unorganized and inefficient, and as a tragic result, lives were lost and thousands fell ill. People understandably stopped buying spinach, and spinach producers across the country suffered from a serious crisis of confidence. The food safety bill will make a difference by enabling the FDA to ensure dangerous products are recalled. To offer another example, a 2003 hepatitis outbreak in green onions was particularly troubling because no one knew its origination or how far the tainted onions were spreading. This bill enhances FDA's ability to trace back potentially unsafe foods, so in the event of a future outbreak we'll know where the problem came from and have a better idea of how far it could spread. The bill focuses on risk-based prevention for both domestically produced and imported foods. Imports from overseas will have safety verifications and U.S. officials will be able to inspect foreign food production plants. The baby formula scare that occurred in 2008 after China found tainted bottles would have been much less likely to occur if we had at the time more assurances of the safety of our imported foods. Lastly, a common misunderstanding is that this bill will hurt small farmers and growers. It will not. Producers currently under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Department of Agriculture - which most in Nebraska are - will remain under USDA jurisdiction. Small farms won't be required to keep any new food safety records; home gardens and farmers' markets won't be outlawed. Those are myths which unfortunately gained traction last week. What the bill does is enhance the ability of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to confront an outbreak of food-borne illnesses. By protecting consumer confidence in the safety of our food, this bill helps to protect our farmers and ranchers who grow it; truck drivers and railroad workers who ship it; grocery store employees who sell it, families who enjoy it; and everyone who appreciates the economic benefits throughout the state when our food supply chain is healthy and productive.