What does the Food Safety Modernization Act mean for farmed animal welfare?

From ANIMAL PEOPLE,  January/February 2011:

WASHINGTON D.C.-U.S. President Barack Obama on January 4,  2011 signed into law the Food Safety Modernization Act,  the most extensive update of U.S. food safety legislation since 1938.  The enforcement regulations are due to be completed by 2014.

Though not specifically an animal welfare bill,  the Food Safety Modernization Act has huge implications for animal welfare,  especially in regard to livestock and poultry disease control. The Food Safety Modernization Act specifically does not amend or supercede the Federal Meat Inspection Act,  the Poultry Products Inspection Act,  the Egg Products Inspection Act,  and the Packers & Stockyards Act.  However,  the act includes 28 specific mentions of animals.  Most of the mentions stipulate that the provisions of the Food Safety & Modernization Act extend to protecting animal health as well as human health.

Section 208 of the Food Safety Modernization Act directs the chief administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, Secretary of Health & Human Services,  Secretary of Agriculture,  and state,  local,  and tribal governments to prepare “specific standards and protocols” for “clean-up,  clearance,  and recovery activities” following outbreaks of “foreign animal diseases.”

This is to include directions for “the disposal of large quantities of animals” who “have been infected or contaminated by Šforeign animal diseases.”

Section 2008 may improve animal welfare by helping to prevent the spread of debilitating livestock diseases.  But pending the issuance of enforcement regulations,    Section 2008 raises concern about what methods may be recommended for killing animals who may have been exposed to pathogens,  and may not be transported for conventional slaughter,  lest transport spread the disease that the killing is intended to control.

In 2003,  for example,  Newcastle disease,  a fungal infection deadly to birds, spread from gamecocks to egg farms in San Diego County,  California.  Acting on the advice of American Veterinary Medical Association animal welfare committee member Gregg Cutler,  several egg producers cleared their facilities of potentially infected hens by tossing them alive into a woodchipper. Mass slaughter to eradicate disease is a strategy used since antiquity,  but the numbers of animals killed have soared since 1996, raising awareness worldwide that existing protocols for killing and disposing of the remains of diseased livestock and poultry are inadequate.  Livestock and poultry illness outbreaks such as the eruptions of foot-and-mouth disease,  mad cow disease,  Nipah virus,  the H5N1 avian flu and H1N1 swine flu,  and Sudden Acute Respiratory Syndrome have caused producers in Europe,  Asia,  and Egypt to kill millions of animals in each of the past 15 years.  The increased prophylactic killing is partly because the advent of factory farming has increased the numbers of animals exposed to pathogens in each afflicted barn,  and partly because awareness that zoonotic disease can spread internationally and jump into humans has increased exponentially since the 1996 discovery that mad cow disease appears to cause the invariably fatal Creutzfeld-Jakob Disease in humans.

Avian and swine influenza became well-recognized threats to human health after the 1918 global influenza pandemic,  which is believed to have killed from 50 to 100 million people worldwide–17 million in India alone. Because farms were much smaller until recent decades,  however,  the scale of prophylactic killing was less.  Before the discovery of the mad cow disease connection to human deaths, there was relatively little concern that livestock and poultry diseases might afflict humans even if humans do not display symptoms of infection soon after exposure.

Zoonotic disease outbreaks that do cause relatively prompt symptoms in humans are also increasingly widely recognized. “Each year, foodborne illness strikes 48 million Americans,  hospitalizing 100,000 and killing thousands,”  Food & Drugs commissioner Margaret A. Hamburg posted to Food-Safety.gov on January 3,  2011.  The Centers for Disease Control & Prevention estimates that food-borne contaminants,  chiefly bacterial,  contribute to causing about 300,000 serious illnesses per year, at cost of about $152 billion.

Pet food covered

Commented the Humane Society of the U.S. in a prepared statement,  the Food Safety Modernization Act “is an important step forward in protecting public health,  and will also provide much needed additional safeguards for pet food.  Among its many provisions,  the bill sets safety standards for imported foods,  requiring importers to verify compliance,  and gives the FDA authority to impose mandatory recalls of contaminated products.  In 2007,”  the HSUS statement remembered,  “imported pet food tainted with melamine killed or sickened many pets, helping spur legislation that year to strengthen food safety oversight.  But the law passed in 2007 did not include mandatory recall authority or certification of foreign food sold to U.S. consumers.”

“Countless recalls in the pet industry have shaken consumer confidence,”  added Daphne Reid of PetPeoplesPlace.com. “Salmonella contamination has affected companies such as Mars Petcare U.S.,  Iams,  and Pro-Pet,  leading to recalls of foods and supplements.  The current system relies on government inspectors to catch contamination.  This new legislation would require farmers and manufacturers to not only implement strategies to prevent contamination, but also test them continuously to be sure they are effective.  While the bill would not apply to meat,  poultry,  or processed eggs,  which are regulated by the USDA,”  Reid noted,  “these have long been subject to much more rigorous inspections and oversight than FDA-regulated foods.”

“The new food safety law will give FDA expanded authority over approximately 80% of the U.S. food supply,”  wrote Helena Bottemiller for Food Safety News,  “by giving the agency mandatory recall powers and expanded access to records.”  Small producers “Though the measure had bipartisan support,  critics worry that the FDA will use its authority in ways that will favor corporate farms and manufacturers,” assessed Patrik Jonsson of Christian Science Monitor. “Supporters include General Mills,  Kraft Foods,  Monsanto, and the National Association of Manufacturers,”  Jonsson observed.  “Opponents include the American Grassfed Association, Family Farm Defend-ers,  and the Small Farms Conservancy.”

“Amendments to the final bill,” introduced by Senator Jon Tester of Montana and Representative Kay Hagan of North Carolina, “exempted companies with less than $500,000 in revenue and companies that sell their goods only within 250 miles of the plant,”  Jonsson noted. “The Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture,  which represents smaller farmers, backed the bill,” as did Fast Food Nation author Eric Schlosser and The Omnivore’s Dilemma author Michael Pollan,  after the Tester/Hagan amendment was added. But advocates of small-scale and local livestock production remain wary of the Food Safety Modernization Act,  especially from concern that the enforcement regulations will include record-keeping requirements that favor factory farmers with more employees and less variation in how individual animals are raised. Summarized Grist health and food issues reporter David E. Gumpert,  “For years,  the USDA sought to implement a program that would force farmers to register their farms and each and every animal,  known as the National Animal Identification System.  The USDA finally pulled back in 2009,”  because of “growing farmer outrage,”  Gumpert said,  that the identification system would “allow the feds ever-expanding control over their animals and their land.

“Tester-Hagan may wind up accomplishing something similar,”  Gumpert speculated.  This might occur,  Gumpert suggested,  through the research required to complete a study required by the Tester-Hagan amendment.  In the language of the amendment,  the study will attempt to quantify “the incidence of food-borne illness originating from each size and type of operation.”

Responded Farm & Ranch Freedom Alliance founder and executive director Judith McGeary, “The bill does not mandate that any  person hand over information to the government.  There is a positive reason behind this study,”  McGeary said.  “In arguing that local foods and small farms are safer and should not be regulated by FDA,  we don’t have a lot of hard data to back us up.  The directive to do a study is the first attempt to get data to show that smaller-scale producers who don’t commingle their products and who do less processing and transporting produce safer food.”

Unpasteurized milk

Agreed Grist food editor Bonnie Azab Powell,  “The FDA’s recent actions toward raw milk and cheesemaking farms does not provide much reassurance that it will adopt a laissez-faire attitude toward similar operations going forward. However,  call me naively optimistic,  but I think that the growing visibility of the real-food,  know-your-farmer movement,  and the public’s outrage over massive recalls and foodborne illness outbreaks,  will go a long way toward ensuring that the FDA’s focus stays where it belongs:  on high-risk industrial plants.”

The FDA has actively sought to discourage the growth of the raw (unpasteurized) milk industry primarily due to the spread of the bacterial infections E. coli,  salmonellosis, and campylobacteriosis transmitted by unpasteurized dairy products.  Also of concern since 1996 have been incidents in Massachusetts and Oklahoma in which raw milk producers sold milk from rabid cows,  consumed by more than 80 people who received post-exposure rabies vaccination,  and suspicion that tickborne encephalitis can be transmitted by consuming milk from infected cattle and goats.

The Animal Welfare Institute’s Animal Welfare Approved program certifies husbandry practices on family farms.  Though AWI advocates small-scale farming,  “AWI didn’t take a position on the Food Safety Modernization Act,”  AWI president Cathy Liss told ANIMAL PEOPLE, “because we saw the impact to animal welfare as indirect,  but we supported the legislation’s intent.  It allows the FDA to inspect farms as well as slaughter plants,  which is a good thing.

And it also gives FDA access to internal records and gives the agency authority to set standards for imported foods, investigate animal disease outbreaks and to recall food products.  We’ll have to wait for the rule making process to see how animal depopulation for disease control,  and other issues that may affect animal welfare, will be handled.”           –Merritt Clifton

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