Sen. Tom Coburn of OklahomaNot surprisingly, the so-called food safety legislation has been revived by dealmakers in the U.S. Senate, and its fate is likely being decided as I write this. The Obama administration, having lost in its effort to change the “Don’t ask, don’t tell” military policy on homosexuals, is desperate for a victory, any victory, so its allies have grasped for Senate bill 510.

Fortunately, one senator has stood up to voice the deep concerns many food producers, farmers, and consumers concerned about food freedom have about this legislation. He is Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma. The fact that he is also a physician gives him added credibility.

Now, in the complex rules labyrinth of the Senate, one senator opposing legislation can force debate and even stall major legislation via a tactic known as a filibuster. This may seem crazy, even ridiculous, but many political scholars have long viewed it as part of the genius of our political system of checks and balances–one more way to ensure that trivial, or dangerous, legislation, doesn’t get rushed through into law.

Interestingly, Coburn is being portrayed by Democrats and others in favor of the food safety legislation as using it for last-minute Republican political maneuvering by raising the issue of how the food safety legislation will be paid for. Yes, he is raising budgetary concerns, but what the proponents of the legislation fail to mention is that Coburn also presents serious concerns about the authority the legislation will give to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration–concerns that those of us who have worried about this legislation have long suggested as well.

He states: “While some regulations are potentially onerous, but perhaps reasonable – such as requiring every facility to have a scientifically-based, but very flexible, food safety plan—others give FDA sweeping authority with potentially significant consequences. While it is hard to pull out just 1 or 2 regulations in the bill that make the entire thing unpalatable, on the whole this bill represents a weighty new regulatory structure on the food industry that will be particularly difficult for small producers and farms to comply with (with little evidence it will make food safer).”

One of Coburn’s concerns is “performance standards, ” which he says “could be used by FDA to issue very specific and onerous regulations on food facilities, without even the normal rule-making and guidance process FDA food regulations normally go through.” As we know, regulators can be very creative about such matters.

He also worries about the legislation’s requirement for a “product tracing system within the FDA” which he argues “will be very onerous on industry.”

There is more, such as allowing the FDA to charge companies for imposing food recalls. As Coburn notes, “even in the worst food safety outbreaks, there do not appear to be any instances in which tainted products were on the shelves or with distributors that the company at fault did not work with FDA to conduct a voluntary recall.”

The U.S. Senate is known for its “clubbiness,” and I don’t pretend to understand the subtleties of the parliamentary maneuverings that go on there. But sometimes, when lots of senators privately worry about a piece of legislation that seems on its surface to be about doing good things, they tacitly agree to let one or more senators take the heat, and use the byzantine rules as an excuse to block legislation. That may be what is happening with the food safety legislation. Let’s hope.

These maneuverings may be all that stand between America’s food producers and the imposition of a total food dictatorship. 


On the subject of food safety, today’s New York Times reports on its investigation of egg industry problems, and how the federal government essentially left it to the states to carry out ad hoc actions against the most flagrant factory egg production facilities, owned by Austin DeCoster. 

It states: “Records released by Congressional investigators last week suggest that tougher oversight of Mr. DeCoster’s Iowa operations might have prevented the outbreak, which federal officials say is the largest of its type in the nation’s history, with more than 1,600 reported illnesses and probably tens of thousands more that have gone unreported.”

Of course, we know part of the reason the FDA wasn’t cracking down on DeCoster’s salmonella production factories. Its inspectors and prosecutors were devoting huge resources over the last few years to prosecuting raw milk producers. (Both dairy and eggs are under the authority of John Sheehan’s department at the FDA.) The FDA initiated criminal prosecutions of Dee Creek in Washington and Organic Pastures in California, while ignoring tens of thousands of illnesses from eggs.