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The Farm Bill and Food Safety
What is the farm bill?
The farm bill is a huge package of legislation passed about every five years that has a tremendous impact on farming livelihoods, how food is grown, and what kinds of foods are grown. It sets the agenda for the USA’s food and farming systems from crop insurance for farmers to healthy food access for low-income families, from beginning farmer training to support for sustainable farming practices.
The 2018 Farm Bill had twelve titles, which are the areas it covered. These were:
Research, Extension and Related Matters
As you can see in the diagram below, most of the 2019-2023 Farm Bill went towards the Nutrition title, which includes the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) which used to be known as food stamps.
Why is it important this year?
Congress passed, and the President signed the last Farm Bill into law in 2018 and covers five years of appropriations for the USDA. So this year it is up for renewal by Sept 2023. The renewal process requires the House Committee on Agriculture and the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry to independently and concurrently draft and vote on the bill. Once it passes committee, they presented the bill to their colleagues in the appropriate chamber for a whole House or Senate vote. After it passes both chambers, there is a reconciliation process called conferencing to make both the House and the Senate bills are the same. After a final vote, they pass the bill on to the President to sign into law. Once the bill is signed into law, Congress must appropriate funding to federal agencies to implement the programs. Some titles, like nutrition assistance, are mandatory and must be funded. Others are discretionary and are appropriated each year by Congress.
Without the Farm Bill being reauthorized, some farm bill programs expire, including nutrition assistance and farm commodity support. Other programs, such as crop insurance, have permanent authority and do not need reauthorization. They are in the Farm bill to make policy changes or achieve budgetary goals.
How does the farm bill affect food safety?
The farm bill doesn’t directly cover either the FDA or the Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS) of the USDA. It makes money available for research and training and this is one area where the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture (NASDA) hope the farm bill will help farmers.
In particular, they want continued funding for farmers to get help and training around the Produce Safety Rule of the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA). This rule is one that farmers who grow specialty crops, like leafy greens, that are eaten raw have to follow. Before FSMA there was no requirement for farmers to keep food safety records and so this is quite a big change and can be challenging, especially for smaller growers. Some records they are expected to keep include having a Supplier Approval Program, testing water used for irrigation and for washing crops, training employees on food safety to make sure they follow good practices, such as washing their hand before harvesting.
Other ways the Farm Bill can affect food safety is to provide money for research into food safety issues and for grants for food safety training.
Federal Food Safety
The two main federal agencies that oversee America’s food supply and ensure that it is safe are the Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS) of the USDA and the Foods Divisions of the FDA.
FSIS has a budget of over a billion dollars which pays for nearly 8,600 FSIS personnel and their support, which includes technology, laboratories, and vehicles. These frontline inspectors ensure the safety of meat, poultry, and egg products at over 6,600 processing, slaughter, and import establishments in the U.S.
The Foods Divisions of the FDA which is part of the Department of Health and Human Services has a budget of about a 1.7 billion dollars. This division handles food safety, including the Food Safety Modernization Act, food additives, food labeling, dietary supplements and health and nutritional claims. The FDA is responsible for the safety of 80% of our food supply.
What else is important about the farm bill?
Climate Change and Biodiversity Loss
Many organizations, both farm-based and environmental groups, hope that the Farm Bill Conservation Title will do more to help farmers practice conservation, reduce biodiversity loss, and use sustainable agriculture practices which improve soil health and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
In recent years, America has lost roughly a football field’s worth of natural area every 30 seconds to development, with most of that being in private hands. Thus, the hope is that the farm bill can support reverse some of this loss and slow down future loss of natural areas. By protecting and restoring grassland, forests, wetlands, and other wild areas, we also protect our water supply and biodiversity.
As we saw in the above diagram, the Nutrition Title is the biggest portion of the Farm Bill. This is probably the most popular and most contentious part of the bill The Nutrition Title deals with nutrition assistance programs like SNAP (aka food stamps). These programs are essentials as over 30 million American households experienced food insecurity in 2021 which is 1 in 10 households. Black (19.8%) and Hispanic (16.2%) households were disproportionately affected, with food insecurity rates more than double the rate of white households (7%). Most of the people using SNAP are already employed or caring for family members.
While nutrition assistance programs are also funded through regular budget processes, the Farm Bill is a time when lawmakers can change the rules of the program. So who qualifies and why and what can they buy with their assistance? For example, there is a push to recommend that people can only buy certain foods with their nutrition assistance; those that are deemed healthy as recommended by the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.
While the farm bill is in committee and before Congress votes on it, we can have a say! The best way to take action it to reach out to your federal representatives as they are the ones voting on the law.
Additionally, the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry is requesting ideas and proposals for the 2023 Farm Bill, as well as feedback about the 2018 Farm Bill. You can give do this via this form or emailing FarmBill2023@ag.senate.gov.
Here are some references that I used to help me understand more about the Farm Bill. Each time it goes through Congress, I learn a little more!
Who Writes Food Crumbs?
Cathy Davies runs a food safety consultancy, Food Safety Mid Atlantic, supporting specialty food businesses with their food safety plans and programs. If you are interested in learning more about my consulting services, please schedule a free call.
Check out our recent blog post on Food Safety Self Audits which discusses why food safety internal audits are essential for a safe food business and how a specialty food business can to prepare and carry a self audit.
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