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Supporters of local and organic food should be substantially reassured that the new food safety legislation working its way through Congress does not place an inordinate burden on small and organic growers.

"The Packer," a trade publication for the produce industry, reported Sept 14 that FDA Commissioner Peggy Hamburg pledged that the FDA will be sensitive to the concerns of smaller growers and organic producers as it sets any new regulations.  "Everyone has a duty to make their food safe, but there is more than one pathway for that," she said.  She promised that the FDA's food safety rules will be based on an adaptable set of preventive controls.

"It will not be one size fits all. They will be scaled for risk, and they will reflect the needs and concerns of the community," she said in an address to the United Fresh Produce Association's Washington Public Policy Conference.

Ever since Congress began considering new legislation to provide the FDA more authority, responsibility and resources to protect Americans from unsafe food, smaller farmers have been concerned that provisions of the legislation, intended to address problems raised by large produce growers and processors, would be piled on them and become an unnecessary burden.

Chrys Ostrander from Chrysalis Farm@Tolstoy argued that "fruits and vegetables are definitely NOT 'at the heart of a weakness in the inspection system.'"  He suggested that reforms proposed by the Make Our Food Safe Coalition could lead to the destruction of small farms and small-scale food processors.

While Chrys cites only "my impression" that fresh produce is not responsible for large numbers of foodborne illnesses, research shows both imported and domestic fresh produce have been responsible for large numbers of foodborne illnesses and outbreaks.  Compiling data from the CDC and state and local health departments, the Center for Science in the Public Interest found that, between 1990 and 2006, produce was second only to seafood in causing foodborne illness outbreaks and was responsible for 21 percent of the illnesses in their database. Produce was responsible for more outbreaks than meat, poultry, eggs, dairy and bread products.  

Foodborne illness outbreaks hurt producers as well as consumers. Farmers far removed from a contamination incident or outbreak can be driven out of business when consumers decide not to buy a particular produce even though it was produced far away from the problem area. Nationally, the demand for spinach and lettuce dropped radically after California spinach was implicated in an outbreak of E. coli O157:H7 poisoning. The industry has not yet fully recovered.

Florida tomato farmers were devastated by the connection of their product to the Salmonella Saint Paul outbreak that came at the height of their growing season. USDA recently announced that farmers will likely cut their production of peanuts by about 27 percent this year as a result of smaller contracts from buyers. Folks just aren't going to buy food that might make them or their family sick.  

We know that under current law the FDA can't fix these problems. The agency has no specific mandate to prevent illness or require recall of adulterated food and inspects food processors only about once every ten years.  They rarely look at imported food.  

While both farmers and consumers benefit from safer food, no one benefits from a law that puts ridiculous burdens on small farmers. The bill that passed the House does NOT impose fees on farms.  They are specifically exempted from the registration fee.  Many of the provisions that initially sparked fear among small and organic producers were changed or dropped before the bill passed the House last July.

Some farmers who also engage in small scale food processing are concerned that they'll have to pay a registration fee.  We think it is likely that the Senate will not support a flat fee for all companies regardless of size but will adopt some sort of sliding fee based on size of the operation or exempt the smallest farms altogether.  Members of the Make Our Food Safe Coalition hope we can work with small farmers and organic groups to help assure sufficient funding for the agency to do its work adopts a sliding registration fee based on the size of a processing activity.

Dr. Hamburg has pledged that FDA regulations will be sensitive to scale. That should open the door for small farmers to join victims and consumer advocates in urging Congress to pass a bill that recognizes the special needs of small farmers but still has the power to assure that all companies operate in a manner that reduces the risk of foodborne illness to the lowest level. If consumers and small farmers can agree on the need for Congress to give FDA the power and resources and responsibility for preventing foodborne illness, including developing scale-appropriate regulations, we could be strong allies in assuring that that gets into the final legislation and agency rules.

We all eat to preserve life and health. No one wins when people eat and get sick, not the farmer or the consumer.  No one benefits if all our food comes from giant farms far away. Farmers and consumers and foodborne illness victims should be working together to protect everyone's health and to assure organic farmers and artisanal processors don’t get hammered by big guy regulations. We could work together and do better for all of us.  It will drive our mutual enemies crazy.

Carol Tucker-Foreman
Distinguished Fellow
The Food Policy Institute (part of the Consumer Federation of America)

The opinions here are the author's alone and do not represent the official policy for the entire Make Our Food Safe Coalition.

Originally posted to makeourfoodsafe on Wed Sep 16, 2009 at 06:52 AM PDT.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Thanks. This is relevant to work I'm doing now. (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    subtropolis, BYw

    I'm working with a regional development group that is trying to re-build the missing pieces of a local food system so that more of the food consumed in the region is grown in the region.  A focus of this effort is small- and medium-sized farms.  There's a lot of confusion about what steps small farms must take to meet health and safety standards designed for larger operations.  This isn't a problem for direct marketing (farmers markets and CSAs), but is an impediment to meeting the requirements of institutional buyers.  If we can't get locally grown food into schools,  hospitals, grocery stores, etc., we won't be able to significantly increase the market for locally grown food (we're aiming for 10% of food consumed being locally grown).  I'm glad to hear that Washington is sensitive to the scale issue.

  •  Meat is the major culprit in food safety (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    subtropolis, buddabelly, BYw
    When there is a problem with produce it is usually because of runoff from meat operations.

  •  Food Safety Bill (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    subtropolis, buddabelly

    Because of the circumstances surrounding House approval of the Food Safety Bill, I doubt that reassurance from the FDA will quell any objections by small farmers to this bill.

    The bill was rewritten the night before it was to voted on in the House. By 11:00 am the next day, the text of the bill was not available for any of us farmers to read. The bill was voted on later in the afternoon under special provisions that prohibited amendments to the bill but required approval by 2/3 of the House. The bill failed.

    The bill was brought to a vote again, still prohibiting amendments, but this time requiring only a simple majority and it passed.

    When we are excluded from the political process, don't expect us to support the results of that process. Why not write a bill that lays out specific exclusions for small farmers and that addresses our concerns? I for one don't care to rely on the promises of a government bureaucrat.

    The Food Policy Institute has received generous support from the Kellogg Foundation, and Kellogg has been a strong supporter of the bill in question.
    The FDA $500 inspection fee is not a burden for a company like Kellogg - they made sure of that; the $500 inspection fee is a huge burden for the small producers - we were ignored. The paperwork requirements is not going to be a problem from Kellogg, but those requirements and the huge fines for errors and non-compliance will be a problem for small businesses.

    •  FPI does not receive money from Kellogg (0+ / 0-)

      H.R. 2749 passed the House on July 30 by a vote of 283-142, more than a two/thirds majority. The Senate is beginning work on food safety legislation which will be debated and, no doubt, amended in the HELP committee and on the Senate floor. S. 510, the Senate bill, does not include registration fees, because they were opposed by big food processors.

      Members of the Make Our Food Safe Coalition support organic agriculture and small farms. We are eager to work with small farmers to avoid overly burdensome requirements. Our goal is to reduce the number of illnesses and deaths that arise from contaminated food.

      The Food Policy Institute does not receive money from the Kellogg Foundation. The positions of the Institute, which is part of Consumer Federation of America, are determined by CFA members at our annual meeting and by CFA’s board of directors. The board is composed of representatives of local, state and national consumer interest organizations. There are no business or corporate members.

      •  This Food Policy Institute? (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        Calamity Jean

        From the Food Policy Institute website: Link

        The Food Policy Institute (FPI) is an academic research unit of Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey. Founded in 1999, with the generous support of the Kellogg Foundation, Cook College and NJAES, FPI is the product of a collective vision of leaders from the food industry, government, consumer groups and university researchers.>

        Initial vote on bill:Link

        Jul 29, 2009: This bill failed in the House of Representatives by roll call vote. The vote was held under a suspension of the rules to cut debate short and pass the bill, needing a two-thirds majority. This usually occurs for non-controversial legislation. The totals were 280 Ayes, 150 Nays, 3 Present/Not Voting.>

        It did pass the second time around, but only a simple majority was required this time.

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