Farmers markets: A Q&A about U.S. food policy in an election year

This is part of a Scripps Howard News Service and Daily News special report on Farmers Markets and food safety. For the full report, pick up a copy of Sunday's Daily News and return to through Monday.

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WASHINGTON _ Food policy is food politics in an election year. The future of food is even on the ballot in California in November, when voters will be asked whether producers should be required to label genetically modified food.

It's also the stuff of major lobbying campaigns in Washington, where the rules pertaining to the Food Safety Modernization Act, passed in 2010, are about to be released. And then there's the behemoth farm bill, the legislation that comes along every five years to govern everything from school nutrition and food stamps to crop subsidies and genetically modified crop research.

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Q: What is the Food Safety Modernization Act? Who backed it? And will it achieve its mission?

A: The act was introduced by U.S. Rep. Betty Sutton, D-Ohio, with the intended purpose of shifting the Food and Drug Administration from responding to illnesses caused by contamination to preventing contamination. By the time the bill made it through the Senate, the final House vote was 215 to 144. Just 10 House Republicans voted for it.

Curtis Allen, an FDA spokesman, said "four large, complex and ground-breaking rules" for implementing the measure are under review but he had no timetable for when they would be final.

The law will for the first time give the agency mandatory-recall authority. It will be paid for largely through new user fees paid by the companies now required to register and be inspected by the FDA. Food-industry groups ranging from frozen food manufacturers to pet food makers have commended the Obama administration for increasing the FDA's food-safety budget to implement the new law but oppose the user fees that are likely to be passed on to consumers as added costs.

"Improving consumer-safety laws is critical to ensuring that our families are kept safe from tainted food and products," Sutton said in a statement to SHNS. "I look forward to seeing these new rules implemented quickly so that our families will have the peace of mind of knowing that the food they provide their children is safe."

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Q: Agricultural subsidies are hotly debated in Washington, with supporters saying they're essential to assure an adequate food supply at stable prices and critics contending they're a wasteful gift to already-wealthy farmers sometimes for not growing anything at all. What is different about the approach being taken this year?

A: The new farm bill is still a work in progress, but the Senate's version, which passed 64-35 in June, eliminates direct payments to farm operations and instead subsidizes crop-insurance companies to the tune of $9 billion a year, making insurance the major safety net covering poor yields or falling prices. The Senate bill also cuts the food stamp program. An amendment that would have allowed states to require labels on genetically modified food was defeated.

A 557-page proposed House bill was released July 5. The current farm bill expires Sept. 30.

"As it's currently written in both the House and Senate, it's basically a pork-barrel giveaway to the agribusiness and crop-insurance industries," said David Murphy, a fifth-generation Iowan and founder of Food Democracy Now, a group opposed to industrial agriculture. He said it doesn't make sense to cut food stamps at a time of record unemployment.

On the food-labeling initiative, which the biotech industry strongly opposes as unnecessarily costly but polls show most Americans favor, Murphy says simply: "Why have we not been allowed to find out what's in our food? Any thinking and rational person would want to look at the long-term ramifications that any technology has, especially when that technology is being fed to humans."

Recent Reuters and MSNBC polling indicates more than nine in 10 people support food labeling of genetically modified foods, which is required in Europe and most developed countries. Supporters say it is the one means of knowing and therefore rejecting such products as the now-almost-universal genetically modified corn whose DNA has been engineered to produce an insecticide, Bacillus thuringiensis, better known as BT.

Labeling would also permit scientists to track the long-term health consequences of consuming such products. Opponents say labeling is a federal issue and should not be left to individual states. Most major processed-food manufacturers use genetically modified plant products and oppose labeling because of its anticipated effect on their brands and sales.

There is no clear partisan divide on the issue. On the Senate vote to permit states to pass labeling laws, 27 Democrats voted it down. One Republican, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, voted to permit states to require labeling.

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Q: What should be the role of government in food safety and nutrition?

A: The federal government has been involved in food safety since at least 1862, when President Abraham Lincoln appointed the first chemist to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In 1906, the Pure Food and Drugs Act passed in Congress. The FDA came into being in 1927. Infant formula nutrition standards took effect in 1980. In 2004, Congress passed the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act requiring that ingredients from allergy-producing foods be listed on product labels.

A Pew Charitable Trusts Health Group survey last year asked if the federal government "should be responsible for ensuring that food is safe to eat." It found that 85 percent of all those asked said it should and 11 percent said it should not. But among those identifying themselves as Democrats, 94 percent backed a government role, compared to 77 percent of Republicans and 67 percent of those associated with the Tea Party movement.

The same survey of 1,015 likely voters also asked how respondents felt about a 1 to 3 percent increase in food prices to implement "new food-safety measures." Seventy-four percent said it would be worth it, while 18 percent said it would not.

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Q: Are any of the presidential candidates making food safety an issue this year?

A: In a word: no. The presumptive Republican nominee, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, has addressed food safety only tangentially, opposing regulations' effects on Americans, including "what food they buy and how they cook it," according to a campaign policy statement.

President Barack Obama signed the Food Safety Modernization Act in 2011. But shortly after taking office, in March 2009, he also created the Food Safety Working Group chaired by the secretaries of Health and Human Services and Agriculture. In his weekly radio address at the time, he said contaminated spinach in 2006, salmonella in peppers in 2008 and bad peanuts earlier that year reflected a "troubling trend" he intended to reverse. However, food-safety issues continue to be a concern. Last summer, poor sanitation in a Colorado cantaloupe grower's packing shed led to a listeria outbreak that killed at least 30 people and sickened 46 others in 28 states.

___ Bartholomew Sullivan is coordinating political coverage this year for the Scripps Howard News Service. Email

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