Don't Punish Small Farms for the Crimes of Industrial Ag
In the next few weeks, we will likely see the passage of the food safety bill in the Senate. It's already passed the House so this is one of the last steps before it hits Obama's desk. It's also one of our last chances to influence the bill. In my view, the goals of the bill are two-fold: First, to make food safer; and second, to NOT harm small businesses and small farms that don't pose a threat to the safety of our larger food system. I think the bill does the first item very well. Admittedly, in many ways it is fighting the last battle, closing loopholes that were apparent problems in last year's peanut butter salmonella outbreak. But they are loopholes that should have been closed long ago.
What the bill doesn't do is promote a more decentralized, regional food system in which people buy food directly from local farms or local businesses. While perhaps that is one of the best ways to improve food safety (because, for one thing, a small business is simply not capable of sickening hundreds or thousands of people across the country, resulting in the recall of nearly 4000 products, like the peanut butter outbreak did), it's not where U.S. politics are right now. Therefore, the best thing we can do for local food right now is to make sure the bill will not put small farms or small businesses out of business by burdening them with regulations that are not appropriate for farms or businesses of their size.
Sen. Jon Tester, an organic farmer himself, has proposed two amendments that will do this. You can send a fax to your Senators asking them to vote for Tester's amendments here. First, he proposes an exemption for all farms selling a majority of their produce directly to consumers, restaurants, schools, etc, from a part of the bill requiring the FDA to set safe produce standards. While it may seem sensible to set safe produce standards, several previous attempts by government to do this have been unrealistic and even harmful, particularly to small farms. A major problem is that any sustainably run farm is teeming with microbes of all kinds - bacteria, fungi, nematodes, you name it - whereas the government seems to think that "safe" means "sterile." Spray whatever pesticide you want on it, but for god sakes, don't let a bacteria or bug anywhere near it! Sustainable farms rely on these microbes (as well as larger critters) to do all of the heavy lifting, from fertilizing the plants to preying on or competing with pest species.
The second exemption goes to processing facilities, which may include farms that do processing (like making jam or sundried tomatoes). Any facility that grosses under $500,000 per year will be exempt from laws requiring them to write a food safety plan ("HACCP" plan) and to participate in a new traceability system. With regards to the traceability system, the will still have to keep records of one step forward and one step back in the supply chain (i.e. "I bought these tomatoes from Green Valley Farm and then sold my tomato paste to ABC Grocery"). As for the food safety plan, again, it may sound like a sensible idea. However, in practice it's quite a bit of work to carry out - work that is likely unnecessary for a business so small that it doesn't require a major analysis. Furthermore, the cost and time involved to the business to identify all potential hazards, document how to reduce their likelihood, and then measure to make sure the controls are working could be huge.
Imagine a jam business. Making jam safely is a rather simple process. Follow the recipe exactly, make sure your jam is acidic enough by adding lemon juice if needed, and boil your jam for long enough to kill anything that may be in it. Do we really need a tiny Mom 'n Pop jam business to routinely send jam samples to a lab for analysis to make sure their process is working? The goal of this amendment isn't to say that all small businesses are inherently safe but rather, they pose relatively little threat to our larger food safety system compared to companies like Kraft, Nestle, and Kellogg's, and their suppliers. The small businesses often provide far more benefit to our economy and our food system than they do in risk. So let's focus on the big guys with this bill to make the vast majority of our food safer without putting small businesses out of business.
Last, we have an illustration of how a food safety bill impacted small business and food safety in the 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act. Upton Sinclair's The Jungle came out in 1906 and it's widely credited as the impetus for the bill. However, canned foods were largely a new thing in America (they got their big launch in the Civil War some 40 years before) and many cans were chock full of wholesome ingredients like sawdust and food dye. Understandably, food safety concerns abounded. At first big business resisted any food safety reform. Then they came around... not because they were for safer food per se, but because they realized that the bill's effect would be putting their smaller competition out of business while reassuring the public that their products were safe. And they were right. Let's not have a replay of the 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act. To take action, fax your Senators here.