Colorado’s major party candidates for the U.S. Senate and Congress were asked by The Colorado Statesman to respond to a series of questions regarding agricultural and farm issues. Scott Tipton, Republican candidate in CD 3, and Ryan Frazier, Republican candidate in CD 7, declined to participate. Part 1 appeared last week.
QUESTION 4: In light of recent food safety concerns, eggs being the latest target, what steps should the Senate/Congress take to improve food safety?
Making sure the food that finds its way onto Colorado’s dinner tables is safe is important to me not just as a Senator, but as a parent of three young girls. The egg recall offers further proof that we need to be doing more to protect our families. It’s time to bring food safety in this country into the 21st century.
Last year the House passed its version of a food safety bill. The Senate is poised to consider a different food safety bill, the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act. The Senate bill is a bipartisan plan that modernizes our food safety system while minimizing regulatory burdens. Any food safety bill must take significant steps toward improving our ability to prevent food safety problems, detecting and responding to food-borne illness outbreaks, and making sure food coming into the U.S. from abroad is safe. I fought to ensure that the Senate bill includes several provisions to reduce the regulatory burden on small and mid-size farms and producers. We need to make sure that these important new reforms protecting the safety of our food don’t unnecessarily jeopardize Colorado’s family farms.
There are bills currently in the House and Senate to address food safety. It is my understanding that the House bill includes provisions that, in effect, would require individuals to register with the government if they sold their neighbor’s produce from their own backyard. I’m told that provision would kill farmers’ markets. I don’t think that’s the right approach.
Right now food producers are in an untenable position. The USDA and FDA can issue press releases to the public claiming that certain food is dangerous, but there are few ways to hold the agencies accountable if they’re wrong. We saw this dynamic recently in the public information put out about contaminated tomatoes. Undoubtedly, that information led to tomato producers, suppliers, and distributors going out of business when, in fact, the reported illnesses were traced back to salmonella in jalapenos.
It’s important that the federal agencies have the ability to ensure food is safe, but at the same time they must be held accountable. If the USDA and FDA are given mandatory recall authority, there must be a mechanism in place to indemnify food producers when the agencies are wrong.
With the egg recall at the forefront of our collective consciousness, it has become clear that our nation’s food safety infrastructure is sorely outdated. Each year, millions of Americans fall ill as a result of foodborne illness and thousands die; and many estimate the health-related costs of these illnesses to be in the billions of dollars. To update our infrastructure, we need to increase the traceability of our food and give the Food and Drug Administration mandatory recall authority. Traceability will allow us to follow our food from the farm to the fork. It makes sense not just for consumers — less of whom will fall ill as a result of each outbreak — but also for producers and farmers, who suffer financially when the tainted food cannot be quickly identified. As for recall authority, right now we rely on companies to act in our collective best interests and remove harmful products from our shelves. While many do so, in several cases companies have refused to recall their products even after they have been proven to contain salmonella or other dangerous bacteria. The Food Safety Enhancement Act, of which I am an original co-sponsor, would fix both these problems and update our woefully outdated food safety infrastructure. I am hopeful that the Senate will move quickly on this important legislation when they return.
We should actually enforce the regulations we have in place now.
The House has already passed a food safety bill this congress that takes into account not just food safety, but also the needs of a growing organic foods market. We often don’t fully realize that the recent salmonella scare in eggs and previous outbreaks of E. coli have had serious health consequences for those who’ve become ill. E. coli, for example, can mean a lifetime of serious neurological consequences for those who become ill and survive. It’s not a small problem either, as every year over 70 million people get sick and over 5,000 people die. While it might not be possible to ensure that no one ever gets sick from tainted food, there are improvements we can make to the existing laws. The good news for our farmers is that these reforms don’t need to take the form of increased regulations or rules that can become burdensome. The reforms passed by the house would change the bureaucracy at the FDA, ensuring better enforcement of existing laws and ensure better communication and accountability amongst the offices in charge.
A company that sells contaminated food is not one that will be in business very long. We have had the FDA out doing all sorts of inspections for decades on food quality. It is unclear that an increasingly larger almost police state review and oversight of the agriculture and food industries is in diminishing returns. It is terrible when you get contamination that sickens people and sometimes kills them. I think the best way to mitigate these is through the free market. Farmers and food producers should have liability insurance to guard against these things because no human activity is 100 percent risk free and the companies that have good hygiene standards and good food preparation standards will have very low rates on their liability and the ones who don’t either won’t be able to purchase liability insurance or pay higher rates.
Currently, shell egg producers are not required to have USDA inspectors on site, unlike the meat industry where everything from chickens to beef must pass through USDA inspectors before it hits the grocery store shelves. The first step we could take is to require egg manufacturers to have inspectors onsite. Also, as is the case with any food safety concern, we need to make sure consumers are appropriately preparing their meal. Education on how to properly handle and prepare food products is extremely important in preventing food safety outbreaks.
I believe that we can take steps to further ensure that our food is safe. Two proposals that aim to increase food safety are traceability and increased food inspections. However, the government shouldn’t overstep its authority by regulating every little farmers’ market or produce stand from Ft. Collins to Springfield. It’s a disincentive for small farmers from wanting to sell or plant their crops. Additionally, these smaller producers already comply with regulations from local and state governments. I see no need to add more bureaucracy to small farms.
I look forward to working with FSIS and working to ensure the safest ag products in the world stay that way.
Many unintended consequences can develop from a knee-jerk reaction. We need to find a healthy balance between legislating issues too quickly and protecting the health of Americans and their families.
FDA rules that took effect in early July would likely have prevented the problems that recently occurred with eggs. Food safety is of course an on- going concern of the Congress. States also have an obligation to monitor, evaluate and advance food safety regulations.
The efforts we have seen so far from this Congress are not the right way. It is not a matter of new laws, but the proper enforcement of the laws we have on the books. But that doesn’t interest those who want to expand government — they want new programs, not just better utilization of what we already have.
The Food Safety Enhancement Act provides recall authority and traceability so that the sources of contaminated products can be identified quickly. Congress must ensure that violators, especially repeat violators, are identified sooner and are subject to significant penalties (increased for each violation). Small growers and organic farmers should be exempted from regulations applicable to mass-processed food and animal products.
American families deserve to have confidence the food they eat will not make them sick. We all have a stake in ensuring our food safety system has the resources, and the ability to protect our food supply. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) manage most of the country’s food safety regulatory systems, covering all foreign and domestic food products including poultry, meat, and eggs. These entities also regulate proper labeling and tracking practices so unsafe foods can quickly be recalled and traced to minimize consumer exposure. Congress must provide the oversight necessary to ensure the food safety mechanisms that are in place operate effectively. Additionally, Congress must also properly fund USDA food safety research which is necessary to help experts better understand both the causes of food-borne illness and the best methods to prevent it.
QUESTION 5: What should be the government’s role in regulating raw milk?
U.S. SENATE Bennet
A 1987 federal regulation prohibits the introduction into interstate commerce of any unpasteurized milk product in final package form, intended for human consumption. However, some states do permit the intrastate sale of raw milk intended for human consumption. Within state boundaries, states have the right to set their own laws regarding raw milk.
While regulation of raw milk is a state issue, the federal government can help stabilize milk prices and also make sure dairy farmers have access to fair and transparent markets. Any dairy farmer will tell you the current system of milk marketing orders and price supports is broken. We need reform of our nation’s dairy policy.
U.S. SENATE Buck
I’m in favor of keeping current federal law regarding raw milk. Federal law states that if milk is sold in interstate commerce, it must be pasteurized. Some states allow raw milk for human consumption, although Colorado law says that you can only have raw milk if you own a share of the cow. The illnesses that can result from raw milk are severe. If there were an outbreak, the entire milk industry — both pasteurized and raw producers — would be affected, much like we saw in the recent egg recall. For that reason, I oppose changing current federal law.
CD 1 DeGette
While many people see raw milk has a healthy, organic form of nutrients, we must take care to monitor the health risks of drinking un-pasteurized milk. Raw milk contains many forms of bacteria, and has been directly implicated in cases of E. coli and other very serious illnesses. Like with any product, it is the government’s role to monitor the health risks of drinking raw milk to determine whether the benefits are worth the inherent risks. While some cases of foodborne illness are unavoidable, I am concerned that drinking raw milk might put our children and ourselves in the crosshairs of foodborne bacteria.
CD 1 Fallon
Everyone supports choice in food, but raw milk is a dangerous idea and consumers who drink raw milk are taking a risk.
CD 2 Polis
With regard to the freedom of individuals to eat or drink raw foods, I support that but with certain safeguards. At its heart, this is a question of consumer information and giving consumers the information to make their own informed choice. If someone wants raw milk, that’s their choice, but others shouldn’t be concerned that the milk they are getting is unsafe or is unpasteurized if that’s not what they want. In addition, large-scale production of raw foods brings with it more challenges than raw foods produced locally or sold locally. Consumers have the right to know about the products available to them, and from there they have the right to choose what they buy. A recent FDA raid on a local raw foods market in California crossed the line and there are better ways of enforcing our food safety laws.
CD 2 Bailey
People are smart enough to decide what they want to put into their own body. A lot of people believe that drinking raw milk has nutritional benefits that the pasteurization of milk deteriorates. If they are willing to accept the risk of potential bacterial infection in exchange for increased nutritional benefits, hey, it’s their choice, it’s their body.
CD 4 Markey
I oppose the sale, trade or transfer of unpasteurized fluid milk to consumers because of food safety issues. The vast majority of illness from dairy stems from raw milk, and yet the entire industry suffers. Additionally, I’m supportive of language that was inserted into the Senate version of the food safety bill that would bring all facilities producing raw milk products under the FDA’s Pasteurized Milk Ordinance (PMO).
CD 4 Gardner
That should be left to the states.
CD 5 Lamborn
I do not believe that the government should have a role in regulating raw milk. As a legislator, I do believe it is the role of the government to protect the rights of the individual — including the choice to buy and consume raw milk from a local farmer. I believe it is the responsibility of the consumer to be fully informed when making choices about raw milk consumption. Should there be no government regulation, and a rash of health problems arose, the government could always consider re-regulating.
CD 5 Bradley
As I have stated, food safety is an appropriate role for government. Locally produced raw milk with adequate safeguards is the ideal from my point of view. Spoilage is of greater concern as the product travels further from the source in distance and time. Promoting and encouraging local, sustainable, solutions is a role that needs more attention.
CD 6 Coffman
I think as long as the dangers are made clear, especially the dangers that could occur with the interstate storage and shipping of raw milk, then we should allow consumers the choice.
CD 6 Flerlage
To protect consumers, government should establish and enforce reasonable safety standards for the sale of raw milk with legislation addressing health of the animals (including diet), dairy sanitation, and testing for certain harmful bacteria such as specific, identifiable strains of E. coli, salmonella and campylobacter. I support exemption of cow shares from the definition of a sale of raw milk, as is currently the practice in Colorado, where sale of raw milk is prohibited.
CD 7 Perlmutter
I believe public safety must be the main focus in any issue relating to food safety, including this debate. Facilities producing milk, pasteurized or not, should adhere to basic food safety standards.