Not Digging This Plot
Pending laws hit the small farmer – and food safety – hard.
Thursday, February 18, 2010
It’s getting difficult to name a food that hasn’t caused a pathogen outbreak. Bagged salad, peppers, beef, and peanuts are just some staples that have been caught spreading E. coli, salmonella and others. These outbreaks have inspired a legislative push to make America’s food safer, which sounds like a good thing. Unfortunately, the effort has resulted in pending and proposed legislation that threatens to punish the people and businesses that produce the safest and healthiest food.
The outbreaks are all coming from the Big Ag side of our system, and the new laws aim to regulate the factory farms, processors, and distributors creating the problem. But they also expose small family farms to the same regs and fees.
Food produced on small farms hasn’t been implicated in the recent outbreaks. Small farms create fewer situations in which diseases can thrive; livestock confinement operations, for example, are swimming with E. coli, while the microbe is scarce in smaller livestock operations. Food from large operations is fed into long supply chains where the contamination can spread during transport, storage or processing.
Food grown on family farms and sold locally is often sampled by farmers and their families first – built-in quality control. If there’s a problem with it, the population exposed is localized, making the problem inherently traceable. State and local health and sanitation laws are already in place to regulate it.
“IT’S SAFE TO FEED OUR KIDS COCO PUFFS BUT NOT RAW MILK?”
Nonetheless, the recently passed House Resolution 2749 and the proposed Senate Bill 510 (aka the Food Safety Modernization Act) lump Small Ag and Big Ag together in one regulatory world.
S.B. 510 as written would require small producers and processors to submit to the cumbersome Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) system, which would add onerous burdens of paperwork, record keeping and even infrastructure investments.
The Senate bill says all food processing facilities would have to pay the FDA a $500 annual fee to help cover the costs of enacting the law. This would be a drop in the bucket for large corporations like Dole – which would likely be more expensive to regulate – and disproportionately burdensome for mom-and-pop ops. And while S.B. 510 currently contains no language regarding funding, if Obama’s spending freeze gains any traction, then inspection and registration fees would likely be inserted into it.
S.B. 510, as written, would authorize the FDA to establish “science-based” rules governing the growth and harvesting of crops that are deemed high risk. In the event that farmers have concerns, S.B. 510 mandates only three public forums during the one-year rulemaking period. Stakeholders would bear the expense of traveling great distances to voice concerns, and the FDA has a history of being insensitive to timing with regard to the realities of the farming season. Last year the agency scheduled a discussion on the National Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement in the middle of summer. “Everybody who participated was a farmer who had to set aside their living in one of the most critical periods of the year – and that’s crap,” Harry Hamil, a North Carolina farmer and activist, told Food Safety News.
Many small farmers and consumer groups are working to ensure S.B. 510 only targets companies marketing at a wholesale level for wide distribution, while exempting small farms and processors. Other groups want food safety legislation passed as soon as possible, with or without exemptions. While many are frustrated that the government isn’t doing enough to protect us from food-borne illness, we can’t let the haste to make our food safer lead to crushing the producers that grow the safest food of all. It may create a short-term gain in food safety, but it would represent a long-term loss in health.
“It’s safe to feed our kids Cocoa Puffs, Twinkies and Mountain Dew but not compost-grown tomatoes and raw milk?”asks Joel Salatin, a farmer and activist in Virginia, in a YouTube video. “If there’s one thing that stands between freedom and tyranny, it’s being able to decide what to feed our own bodies. If that isn’t the most basic human freedom I don’t know what is.”
While making S.B. 510 friendlier to small farms is an uphill climb, it’s not without precedent. Hamil points to the FDA’s new egg rule to help minimize salmonella, finalized last summer, as an example of the kind of tiered regulation that could be applied to the rest of the food industry. The egg rule specifically applies only to producers with more than 3,000 laying hens.
If we’re are going to eat food that’s grown, processed, and combined with other ingredients in large facilities thousands of miles from where it is ultimately consumed, enhanced supervision of all steps in that chain is warranted. What isn’t is the application of the same regulations to small producers and processors that are part of the solution. So the pressure is on to make some common-sense changes quickly. Contact your senator.