What will the Food Safety Modernization Act, if put into effect, do to Ms. Obama’s backyard garden? Congress has taken up the issue of food safety because of the headline-grabbing occurrences of, primarily bacterial, outbreaks of disease in fresh meat and produce. With the exception of eggs, most E. coli and salmonella outbreaks are a result of human or animal contamination in the growing or processing of the product. This is the reason organically-grown produce is especially vulnerable. Unable to use chemical fertilizer, pesticides or insecticides, organic growers must make an extra effort to reduce organisms carried by using manure fertilizer, invasive insects and vermin.
I have a garden. I battle many of tomato’s natural adversaries! I appreciate how difficult it must be for a gardener to ward off the tomato worms, hungry caterpillars, beetles, grasshoppers, bugs, birds and rodents by hand, to keep it "organic." I use early season Sevin and pyrethrums because I’m lazy, I guess, or just don’t have the time. Besides, I get healthier tomatoes and more of them!
So what would the Food Safety bill have to do with Ms. Obama’s garden? Would she be allowed to take her tomatoes, lettuce and celery down to the Saturday morning Farmer’s Market? Or serve them in a salad to guests of the White House? I expect the bill would limit her options. An FDA spokesman said the Food Safety bill could actually "kill the very farmers they are trying to help."
Amendments that place lesser restrictions on smaller producers have been discussed to reduce their paperwork burden. But, does that make the product safer than blueberries from Chile and avocados from Mexico? I don’t think so. Congress is trying to avoid eliminating the availability of home-grown fresh meat and produce to consumers with the new law. Sometimes politics enters in and skews the science. Some amendments discussed even want to inflict laws based on where the food is sold or how much the farmer earns, which has nothing to do with food safety!
Under the Food Safety bill, will local co-ops, local producers and Ms. Obama be required to place warning labels on their radishes and zucchini? If she serves it to the French Ambassador will she have to give a short announcement at the table like a flight attendant, "Ladies and Gentlemen, Joe and I will be serving you this afternoon, please give us your attention. Eating of the legally-unrestricted fresh food in front of you, none of which has been grown or processed or approved by the Food Safety Act, can result in distention, nausea and uncontrollable evacuation. Eat at our own risk. This room has several exits, please take note of the one nearest you. In case of a universal attack, emesis bags will fall from the ceiling…."
All of us in agriculture are concerned with these food-carried, usually ‘operator error,’ disease outbreaks, whether it stems from a packing-plant contamination of ground beef, field contamination by fruit pickers or fertilizer-contaminated home-grown cabbage. However, regardless of any laws passed, the risk of eating fresh food will always be there. In the future, I can envision genetically-modified foods or antibiotics that will resist, contain or even prevent bacterial or fungal contamination in the growing process, and someday the government will get wise and require irradiation of fresh meat and produce marketed to the public. But, for now, I will continue to grow my tomatoes and jalapeños, and I wouldn’t be afraid to eat out of Ms. Obama’s garden either. It’s hard to beat home-grown!
Baxter Black is a former large animal veterinarian who can be followed nationwide through this column, National Public Radio, public appearances, television and also through his books, cds, videos and website, www.baxterblack.com.