Food

Don't Let Congress Sacrifice Small Farmers for Food Safety -- We Can Have Both

Small farmers and their supporters are pitted against the large food factories. And the factory farmers have an unlikely ally: the food safety crowd.

All manner of foods have caused large outbreaks of food-borne illness in recent years, and Congress, understandably, has been itching to cook up a big pot of food safety legislation. The result, Senate Bill 510, is likely headed for a vote after Thanksgiving. On the surface, food safety is an issue most everyone can get behind. But many small farm advocates fear that 510 could be a serious blow to small farms.

The regulations and rules in 510, as they should be, are designed to go after the most common sources of food-borne illness, which are usually food facilities that deal with large volumes of food, like meat packing or salad washing facilities. The problem for small farmers arises from the fact that under 510 they would be expected to conform to the same standards as large operations. This would mean disproportionate burdens of time and money given their smaller incomes.

Josh Slotnick, a salad grower in Missoula, Montana, estimates the lettuce-washing shed he fears S.510 will require him to build would cost about $100,000. Slotnick sells locally to farmers markets, restaurants, a grower's cooperative and local grocery stores. He says there hasn't been a problem with his family farm's greens, but if there were one it would be identified and addressed quickly.

"Why should I have to follow the same rules as the companies that are washing half the nation's spinach in the same sink?"

In the legal wrangling over the bill, small farmers and their supporters, as could be expected, are pitted against the large food industrialists. And the factory farmers have an unlikely ally: the food safety crowd, many of whom are motivated by the firsthand experience of losing a loved one to food poisoning.

Many food safety advocates view food primarily in terms of whatever sterilization process it's gone through, and perhaps the breakdown of its nutritional components. But as is often the case with dietitians, nutritionists, and others who use a supposedly more scientific approach to food, many food safety advocates would be less likely to see a greater value in, say, an egg that came from a backyard chicken as opposed to an egg from a ten thousand-bird egg factory

All of the outbreaks--including the deadly E. coli and salmonella poisonings that have recently stricken our nation's food supply--have been created by the grinding gears of economies of scale, and not small farms. Compounding the safety issue associated with food processed in large facilities is the difficulty of tracing food that's processed along with other foods from different farms in different places. Nonetheless many food safety organizations, Safe Tables Our Priority, take the stance that if big producers and processors have to play by these rules, so should the little guys.

"It's ironic that some food safety organizations want to strap small farms with one-size-fits-all regulations designed for industrial-scale producers, when small farms produce our safest food," says Paul Hubbard of the Missoula County Food and Agriculture Coalition. "Why on Earth would anyone who is interested in food safety want to put small farmers out of business?"

A recent amendment to S.510 proposed by Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) aims to decouple the push for food safety from the possibility that food safety regulations might trample small farms. The amendment would exempt from regulation farms that market within 275 miles and earn less than $500,000 per year.

Most small farm advocates approve of the principle if not the numbers. The amendment would spare many small farms financial hardship. But at the same time, many small farm advocates feel that using 275 miles and 500K as the cutoffs sets too high a bar, size-wise, and that it could allow operations that amount to small-scale food factories to escape regulation.

Some food safety cheerleaders, of course, think any exemption is too much. "Too much paperwork, too many rules, not enough time, and slim profit margins are common complaints that are supposedly fixed by the Tester amendment," wrote Kathleen Chrismer, a food safety advocate, in a recent S.510 discussion on Grist.com. "However, let me point to approximately 5,000 deaths that occur every year as a result of food borne illness."

This kind of argument has gaping holes, and one small farm advocate, who prefers to remain anonymous, voiced his frustration: "They look at the Tester amendment and they're like 'why should we exempt small farmers from having to produce safe food?'" But not all food safety advocates are as blind to the potential health benefits of small farms, or so willing to brush away the concerns of farmers. Sandra Eskin, director of the Food Safety Campaign for The Pew Charitable Trusts, told Food Safety News that she has concerns about the Tester amendment. Her group wants to further narrow the radius of what qualifies as local under the Tester exemptions. She also believes any food that's exempt from the law should be disclosed as such. "People should know what they are buying," she says.

Whatever numbers are chosen to define "local" and "small," what's most important, from the perspective of small farms, is that some form of distinction between big and small, local and non-local, be factored in.

Given the appeal of food safety on both sides of the aisle, this bill may be pushed through quickly. If you care about it, now would be a good time to contact your senators and let them know you don't want to sacrifice small farms at the altar of food safety.

Ari LeVaux writes a syndicated weekly food column, Flash in the Pan.