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Why the Race to Improve Food Safety May Punish Those Who Produce the Safest and Healthiest Food

Big Ag is at fault for the nation's food-borne illness outbreaks -- but a raft of pending food safety legislation unfairly penalizes smaller producers.
 
 
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Thanks to a recent spate of high-profile, food-borne pathogen outbreaks, there's been an understandable push for legislation to make America's food safer. Unfortunately, this push has resulted in pending and proposed legislation that, as written, threatens to punish the people and businesses that produce the safest and healthiest food of all, while depriving consumers of the opportunity to eat it.  

There are several reasons why food produced on small farms and marketed locally hasn't been implicated in any of the recent outbreaks. There's no long supply chain for contaminated food to get lost in, no massive warehouses where disease can spread, no processing facilities where foods from diverse sources are combined.

The consumer population that could be exposed to one small farm's produce is inherently small, localized and traceable. Small farms don't usually create the conditions in which diseases tend to thrive; livestock confinement operations, for example, are swimming with e. coli, while the microbe tends to be much more scarce in smaller livestock operations. And food that's grown on family farms and sold locally is usually sampled by the farmers and their families -- a built-in first line of quality control.  

But even though all of the outbreaks that inspired the new raft of food safety legislation have come from the Big Ag side of the food system, 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 the same regulatory framework.

S. 510 as written would require small producers and processors to submit to the same regulatory regime as large producers and processors, including the cumbersome Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) system. This would add an onerous burden of paperwork, record keeping and possibly infrastructure investments to companies that don't necessarily have the resources to handle it.

The problems in our food system that need fixing are those that allow spinach grown in California to sicken people in Pennsylvania, and peanuts grown in Georgia to make people sick in California. If Americans are going to eat food that's grown, processed, and combined with other ingredients in large facilities thousands of miles from where the food is ultimately consumed, enhanced supervision of all steps in that supply chain is warranted.  

What isn't warranted is the application of the same regulations to small producers and processors who sell locally and directly to the consumers. Not only are direct sales to consumers traceable and transparent, but state and local public health and sanitation laws are already in place to regulate them.  

Many small farmers and consumer groups, such as the Western Organization of Resource Councils (WORC), are lobbying for exemptions in S. 510 for farms and processors that market locally, and directly to consumers, restaurants and other institutions. Meanwhile, victims of recent outbreaks understandably want legislative action as soon as possible, and the Make Our Food Safe Coalition is pushing to get S. 510 passed by Valentine's Day.

Although a mid-February vote is unlikely, sources close to the situation say a March vote is realistic. If S. 510 does pass, it will then have to be reconciled with the already approved HR 2749. If changes to S. 510 are to be made that will direct its regulatory focus exclusively on the problematic elements of our food system, these changes have to happen soon.  

Another aspect of S. 510 as written that's threatening to small farms is that it authorizes 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 about the FDA's designation of high-risk crops, or the regulations regarding how they are grown, S. 510 mandates only three public forums during the one-year rulemaking period. Stakeholders would bear the expense of traveling great distances to one of these three meetings 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 the summer.  
 
"Everybody who participated in [the agreement] who was a farmer had to set aside what makes them 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. "There needs to be a statement about the timing of such things. We still have seasonal agriculture in this country. You don't ask, in the middle of tomato planting season or tomato harvesting season, for somebody to review a tomato rule, you do that in the wintertime -- that should be specifically mandated."  

Under HR 2749, 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, but disproportionately burdensome for mom-and-pop operations that sell to their neighbors. And while S. 510 currently contains no language regarding funding, if Obama's spending freeze gains any traction, inspection and registration fees would likely be inserted. If so, it's important that those fees be commensurate with the profits of the company in question, and not a flat rate as written in HR 2749.  

The pressure is on to amend the bill such that local growers and processors would be protected from these sweeping reforms. WORC is aiming to steer the regulation squarely at companies marketing at a wholesale level for wide distribution, while exempting those that market directly to consumers and institutions like schools, hospitals, hotels and restaurants.  
 
It's an uphill climb, but not without precedent. Hamil points to the FDA's new egg rule to help minimize Salmonella enteritidis, 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 egg producers with more than 3,000 laying hens.  
 
Hopefully that kind of sensible scaling can make its way into S. 510. And if it passes, hopefully such changes will remain after it's reconciled with HR 2749.  
 
While many are frustrated that the government isn't doing enough to protect us from food-borne illness, if the haste to make our food safer leads to crushing the producers that grow the safest food of all, that would be a tragic outcome. While it may create a short-term gain in food safety, it would represent a long-term loss in health.  
 
"This food safety is a very subjective thing. If there's one thing that stands between freedom and tyranny it's the choice of 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" said Joel Salatin, a farmer and activist in Virginia, in a YouTube video. "By what extreme notion has it been decided that it's perfectly safe to feed our kids Coco Puffs, Twinkies and Mountain Dew but it's not safe to feed them compost-grown tomatoes and raw milk?" 

 
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