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Worst of Both Bills

Article by B.J. Lawson

 

 

 

What's happening with Food Safety Legislation?

Recent US history has seen a number of incidents of nationally reported food-borne illnesses that have been caused by inadequate sanitation in the production of widely distributed packaged food and produce. Affected items have included lettuce, tomatoes, peanuts, and most recently, eggs. All of these incidents have been traced to large suppliers and growers with national distributions and the potential for both accidental and intentional harm to our food supply has, with good reason, invited federal attention and oversight.

As a result, shortly after taking office President Obama commissioned the Food Safety Working Group (FSWG) with the mission of making recommendations to protect our food supply. (See: FSWG Fact Sheet). The work of this group is ongoing, but by the end of 2009 legislation had been introduced in Congress (HR2749) and Senate (S.510) in response to the recommendations of the FSWG.

In bills and their provisions are complex, but in summary they authorize the USDA, FDA, HHS and other assorted agencies (like Homeland Security) to regulate food production so as to:

  • reduce or eliminate the threat of food-borne illnesses
  • provide a means of tracking the source and distribution of food and produce

HR2749 was passed by the House in 2009 and referred to the Senate for consideration. S.510 has been passed out of committee and is awaiting action by the full senate. Congressman David Price, NC 4th district, supported HR2749. Senator Richard Burr was a co-sponsor of S.510.

Why should Farmers care?

As proposed, neither the House or Senate bills are specific as to the regulations that would be imposed or the producers that would be affected. Amendments to the Senate bill proposed by Senator Jon Tester and supported by Senator Kay Hagen would exempt small growers (gross receipts < $500,000), but these have yet to be passed. Without these amendments, most farmers that grow produce for retail or wholesale markets would be subject to USDA, FDA, and HHS regulation which would require compliance with the regulations, inspection (at the farmer's expense) to verify compliance, and the ability to track source and destination of all foodstuffs sold. The cost to small farmers will make it impossible for many to comply or compete with corporate mega-farms where economies of scale and liability transfer allow the costs to be absorbed. (See Proposed Produce Grower safety guidelines for the USDA's proposed regulations)

Why should Consumers care?

Anyone who buys food will ultimately pay for the costs of implementing and monitoring compliance with these regulations, as well as the systems for providing traceability Where the distribution is national (or international) these costs are warranted and affordable. However, if we insist that the local farm stand be held to the same level of compliance, local foods will cost a lot more because of the inverse economies of scale. Small farmers (like Woodcrest Farm) will find it even more difficult to compete with national distributors and many will not survive. The consequence will be that consumers will be left with ONLY the large growers as their food suppliers: growers who cannot offer fresh, organic, local produce, growers whose transportation and fertilizer costs are dependent on non-renewable energy, and whose products, when compromised, will have regional and national impacts. The Dairy industry in NC is a case in point: The number of Orange County dairies has decline from 87 in 1988 to 11 in 2008, in part because the Raw Milk standard makes small operations unaffordable.

I still want to have an affordable local food option, but I want my food to be safe. What should I do?

All of the recent food-related illness incidents have been traced to factory farms (loosely labeled Agri-business) where sanitization procedures have been inadequate largely because of the size of the operations involved. Small farmers tend not to have these problems because the scope of their operations does not strain safe growing, harvesting, and handling practices. Perhaps more importantly, small farmers are able to compete only because our products are of higher quality: fresher, more nutritious, and locally produced. Our relationship with our customers is secured by trust, not price. In that environment, the safety of our products is a matter of survival, not regulation. If you wish to preserve your option to buy local organically grown produce and processed food then please contact Senators Richard Burr and Kay Hagan, and Rep. David Price and let them know your views. Thank Senator Hagan for her support of the Tester amendments.

Unfortuantely, the public comment period on the FDA regulations expired on 7/23/10. To read the comments submitted before that date, go to regulations.gov and search for docket #FDA-2010-N-0085.