Senate Majority Leader Dean Florez started the year with high hopes that he could transform California’s system of ensuring food safety .
The issue had drawn national attention. “Omnivore’s Dilemma” was atop the best seller lists, while authorities announced they had detected salmonella in hundreds of tainted peanut butter, paste and other products produced by Peanut Corporation of America, prompting a massive recall and a bankruptcy.
Setton Pistachio of Terra Bella, Calif., voluntarily pulled from the shelves scores of its products after federal authorities discovered they too were fouled by salmonella. Beef producers had recalled hundreds of thousands of pounds of hamburger containing e-coli.
“The days of voluntary recalls must come to an end,” Florez, a Democrat from the Central Valley town of Shafter, declared in an opinion article that appeared in the Los Angeles Times in April. “To live with the status quo leaves our nation with an unacceptable paradox: the pistachio nut, lauded in marketing campaigns as a healthy snack for the heart, becoming a killer in the gut.”
Despite all that, Florez had the look of resignation as he presented what was to have been his signature food safety bill at a mid-summer hearing of the Assembly Health Committee.
The measure had been “very tamed down,” Florez acknowledged, appearing to have little enthusiasm for the bill’s remains after a round of severe slashing on the Senate floor.
In its original state, Florez’s SB 173 would have required food processors and growers to notify the state of a potentially tainted product. It would have given the state the power to force a recall, and set severe penalties for processors and growers who fail to do their own testing and are then subject to a mandatory recall.
In its amended form, the bill preserved none of those goals. Instead, the legislation merely sought to authorize the state Public Health Officer to adopt regulations for voluntary recalls, which are initiated by individual companies.
Even in its weakened state, the measure went too far, at least for Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. He vetoed it, declaring:
The Department of Public Health already has broad statutory and administrative authority to ensure contaminated food product is removed from commerce. This bill does not provide any additional improvements to that authority.
In the nation’s biggest farm state, food safety bills stall
In any given year, the Centers for Disease Control estimates, food-borne illness sickens 76 million Americans, sends 300,000 people to hospitals and kills 5,000 individuals. Still, most food safety bills introduced in Sacramento have been swiftly killed or gutted, victims of a powerful agricultural lobby and legislators who generally have looked to Washington to decide how best to protect food.
“We thought this was a federal government function,” said Florez. “Food safety was a hole in the legislative policy agenda.”
Efforts of Florez and several other legislators to make food safety a key issue in California this year were eclipsed by action at the federal level. After years of foot-dragging, Washington was poised to make policy changes in the food safety arena, including increased inspections of food facilities and mandatory recall powers for the government.
Now, California – widely seen as a pioneer in environmental and public health policy – could present more problems than solutions in terms of food safety.
The state is the nation’s largest producer of fresh fruits and vegetables, and also the source of vast numbers of recent outbreaks of food-borne illness. Deadly bacteria have been found in spinach, peppers, almonds, pistachios, and beef, products that are among the state’s top agricultural income-earners.
Advocates of a food safety regulatory overhaul say farms and processing facilities are inspected too infrequently and the state has no power to force growers and processors to reveal the results of microbial tests, or to demand that they recall potentially tainted food.
“It has been left up to industry for far too long,” said Elanor Starmer, a legislative advocate with the non-profit Food and Water Watch.
Safety standards for growing and handling leafy greens were developed after e.coli-tainted, packaged spinach sickened more than 200 people and killed three in 2006.
Critics point out that signing onto the standards – called the Leafy Green Products Handlers Marketing Agreement – is voluntary, although nearly all California salad producers have done so. Also, the standards only apply to the salad market while contamination seems to pop up in an ever-wider circle of food products.
The fact that the salad industry set safety standards after the spinach outbreak, not before, is precisely the problem, Florez said.
“It takes, unfortunately, a crisis or a lot of bad press,” he said.
The farm lobby prevails, despite recalls
A second Florez food safety bill, SB 550, sought to require grocery stores to stop the sale of a product subject to a recall when the product is scanned at the checkout counter. The bill failed, falling 10 votes short of a majority on the Assembly floor as the session drew to a close.
Assemblymember Mike Feuer (D-Los Angeles) also authored an ambitious food safety bill this year. The bill, AB 1372, would have required food processors to implement hazard analysis and control plans similar to those required of participants in the leafy green marketing agreement. (Such plans are already mandatory for meat processors.)
The bill sought to authorize the state to order testing of food products it suspects of being tainted, and, like Florez’s bill, require that food processors report test results showing contamination.
“I think most Californians would be astonished to find that their food is not tested on a regular basis,” Feuer said.
The bill was bottled up in the Assembly Appropriations Committee and did not reemerge this year. Though a proposed increase in public spending to fund the program surely abetted the measure’s hold-up, Feuer said the lobbying factor played an even greater role.
“There was serious opposition from many in the food industry,” Feuer said. “I thought that opposition was extremely short sighted.”
Food safety advocates say the big players in California’s $34 billion agricultural industry have had much to do with keeping food safety reform out of Sacramento.
“The issue is simply an agricultural industry that has a lot of sway,” Florez said.
Since the start of the decade, the agricultural lobby has spent at least $33.75 million on lobbying in Sacramento, according to records compiled by the California Secretary of State.
Farm groups long have been major campaign donors. The Farm Bureau and Western Growers have spent more than $4 million since the start of the decade, Secretary of State records show.
Political money from agricultural interests is difficult to count to because so much of it comes from individual farmers. But a review of campaign finance reports by ProtectConsumerJustice.org shows that major agricultural concerns (not counting major wineries and their trade groups) have doled out at least $17 million since the start of the decade to political campaigns.
Lobby groups support food safety but not state laws
Wendy Fink-Weber, communications director for Western Growers, said the group is not against food safety, but the legislative process might be too slow to keep up with the evolving science.
“In these days of improving technology, improving science, when you have to rely on government regulation, it is a cumbersome process to update that regulation,” Fink-Weber said. The industry came together to develop safety standards after the spinach outbreak “because government was so slow,” she added
Action at the federal level has also been offered as a reason to stall food safety efforts in California. A representative of the Grocery Manufacturer’s Association, itself a significant lobby force, told the Assembly Health Committee this summer that “the state may just want to fill in the gaps for whatever reforms [federal legislators] do.”
California has made several advances in food safety admired by advocates. A 2006 measure, SB 611 authored by Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Hillsborough) when she was in the state legislature, requires meat or poultry suppliers and processors to notify the Department of Health Services when products they sell are subject to a federal recall due to risk of illness. They also must provide a list of their retail customers. The state can then notify consumers of where tainted products are sold.
The federal government passed a similar rule in 2008.
Some say California may still pave the way in new areas of food safety concern, such as curbing the sale of meat and poultry raised on growth-promoting antibiotics, and labeling meat from cloned animals. However, attempts to pass such legislation have thus far failed.
Florez, who’s running for Lieutenant Governor next year, has little hope for his food safety plans under the current Sacramento administration.
“We’re excited but we have to wait for a new [state] government,” Florez said. “We’re going to hopefully strengthen and build upon the Obama changes in California.”
Jill Replogle has worked as a freelance journalist in the Bay Area and Central America for eight years. She is now a student at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. Jill is currently an intern for Protect Consumer Justice.