OPINION –Food for thought: Who should bear the primary responsibility to ensure that the food we eat is safe? This isn’t merely an academic question, but a growing area of concern for anyone unwilling to hand over control of our food supply to bureaucrats.
Food safety laws have become a flashpoint of concern for agriculture groups, small food producers and organic farmers who see these laws as an unprecedented expansion of government regulatory power over the ability of people to produce their own food.
In a nation where we’re always just one more law away from safety, the enforcement of current food safety regulations have resulted in SWAT teams raiding Amish farmers and organic farmers co-ops over allegations of selling products that haven’t been properly regulated.
The continuing expansion of government power in this arena raises the question: Is there such a thing as too much safety?
The 80–page Food Safety Modernization Act, passed in 2011, moved the Food and Drug Administration out of the realm of mere inspection and into the realm of proactive prevention of food-borne illness.
It expands the enforcement powers of the FDA to where, in the event of a food “emergency” or “major contamination,” the FDA could place all food and farms under the Department of Homeland Security; an agency which is mentioned no less than 41 times in the law’s text.
The FDA claims the power to conduct warrantless searches of the business records of even small growers and producers even if there is no clear evidence that a law has been broken.
Depending upon how the regulations are interpreted and applied, all food production facilities within the U.S. may be required to register with the federal government and pay an annual registration fee.
Fines for paperwork infractions can go as high as $500,000 for a single offense. Producers who sell or distribute food outside of government control could be prosecuted as smugglers.
To handle the increase of mandated inspections of food processing facilities and other provisions of the new law, the FDA will be required to hire more inspectors at greater taxpayer expense.
In fairness, the act contains a number of exemptions (under certain conditions) for small farms and very small food producers who sell their wares within a certain geographical radius and have less than $500,000 in annual sales.
But the problem remaining is that the law is written broadly and vaguely enough to give the FDA a great deal of discretion. Can we trust that the FDA will not expand its enforcement efforts to small growers and producers?
How many other regulatory agencies have experienced mission creep as time goes on? It is much easier to prevent abuse of power by limiting government than it is to correct abuses made possible by ambiguity in the laws.
Concerns over the law have prompted Utah lawmakers, among others, to consider legislation that would exempt agriculture produced and purchased within the state of Utah from federal regulations.
Defenders of the Food Safety Modernization Act have expressed reactions ranging from puzzlement to scorn over those who would question the wisdom of the law. But it’s not a false dilemma of choosing between intensive, inflexible regulation of every aspect of the food supply or having to watch our children die from eating tainted food.
This is an issue where the correct answer is more likely to be found somewhere in between the two extremes. For instance, local growers are easily recognizable within their area – farmers markets – and have no incentive to produce tainted goods.
Economist and author Tom E. Woods offers this tongue-in-cheek characterization of the regulatory mindset: “Without [federal regulation], America would be populated by illiterates, half of us would be dead from quack medicine or exploding consumer products, and the other half would lead a feudal existence under the iron fist of private firms that worked them to the bone for a dollar a week.”
The truth, of course, it that even with minimal regulatory oversight, people will not devolve back to cave dwelling savages by default.
No one wishes to eat unsafe food, but there is much more to these laws than simply providing safeguards to the food supply. Whatever actual safety benefits may be found in the law, there is a corresponding economic impact and impact upon personal liberty that must be considered as well.
Even as food prices are steadily rising for American consumers, the prospect of growing more of one’s own food is becoming increasingly more risky due to regulatory concerns. Food sustains life and any law that complicates or exerts control over a person’s access to or ability to produce food must be weighed against the likelihood of its abuse by those in power.
Bryan Hyde is a news commentator and co-host of the Perspectives morning show on Fox News 1450 AM 93.1 FM. The opinions stated in this article are his and not representative of St. George News.
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Copyright 2012 St. George News.