Food Safety Regulations – Not Ready for Prime Time

By Harriet Behar

drying onionsIt seems almost every month over the past few years there has been a large recall of fresh produce, meat or processed foods due to the presence of microbiological health hazards. Some have had limited effect, and others have caused numerous deaths, sicknesses and long-term health problems for people located across the U.S. who consumed tainted foods distributed by one large food handler or another.

The government’s response to this serious problem resulted in the passage of the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) by Congress more than two years ago. In January 2013, the FDA released its proposed regulations to implement that law. These regulations consist of numerous interrelated parts outlined in over 1,500 pages of text.

Typically, consumers have been on the same side of small-scale, organic, and local foods, but this law has challenged these diverse interest groups to find common ground. Consumer groups want the strictest rules possible, but those producing the food say it is just not that simple.

The FMSA Offered Fair Guidance
There were some “wins” for sustainable and organic farmers in the FSMA. The law included some exemptions to strict food handling documentation and traceability requirements for small-scale farms, especially those that sell their products within a narrow geographic area. In addition, the law includes requirements to provide training for safe food handling, giving smaller-scale producers the knowledge to do things right, protecting their customers from illness and farmers from liability if their food does cause illness.

The law also stated that these food safety regulations should not directly oppose organic regulations. Organic producers should have the same market access as all other food producers, and not be put in the difficult position of trying to meet two contradictory laws.

Under Review
MOSES is working with the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition and the National Organic Coalition to review the proposed regulations. We will post action alerts on our website before the May 16, 2013 deadline for public comment on these proposed food safety regulations.

Although at the writing of this article, I have not read all 1,500+ pages, there are some areas of concern that have already arisen. Parts of the regulation need more scrutiny to ensure they are consistent with each other.

Many areas of the rule contain vague language, giving the FDA and its inspectors great leeway in how the regulation might be enforced out in the countryside. There is concern that different regions of the country will have differing interpretations, as well as uneven enforcement within states.

There could be a variety of unfunded mandates, including a possible requirement that at least one person on every farm have a specific type of food safety training. There are numerous sections that deal with both wildlife and domestic animals on the farm, and these need to be carefully reviewed to make sure that folks who use draft horses will still be allowed this type of production.

We also must make sure that our agricultural working lands allow for wildlife habitat, both for the health of our environment as well as the quality of life and recreational opportunities these provide to the public. In the past few years farms in California took on a “scorched earth” type management style, tearing out wildlife habitat feared to be a potential source of contamination, a judgment based on fear rather than fact. Promoting biodiversity generally provides protections rather than risks.

The proposed regulations have a requirement that human-consumed food not be harvested sooner than nine months after the application of manure. This is a much longer time than required by organic regulations, although the wording is somewhat different. The organic community should be able to present a strong challenge to this requirement, using both our decade of experience as well as science-based statistics.

There are some documentation requirements that appear to place a significant burden on operations, no matter their size. Depending on how they are finally implemented, these could significantly stifle the rapidly growing local food movement, where food is produced by small and mid-sized producers.

The regulations not only affect on-farm production, but also all food processing facilities. This could lessen the availability of scale-appropriate and regionally located processing facilities that allow individual farmers to sell processed meats and other foods directly to consumers.

Concerns for Family-Scale Farms
Everyone can agree that we want the food we sell and/or consume to be free of sickness- causing pathogens. All sizes and types of operations can accomplish this task. Will a “one-size-fits-all” nationwide regulation damage the economic viability of small and mid-sized operations that sell their production within a limited geographic region?

We need to protect the viability of our vision for the future of agriculture in the United States. One that does not promote larger and larger operations, squeezing out familyscale farms and processors. We have made progress in the past few years, revitalizing rural America and bringing young people back to the profession of farming. The attraction of selling directly to consumers and local stores, as well as using organic production practices have contributed to this revitalization.

Stay tuned to MOSES and the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, as we present the issues and grassroots actions you can take to make your voice heard on this important regulation. It is essential that farmers of all types present their opinion in public comment to the FDA, since we all will be affected.

You can find the proposed regulation at these two web links:
www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/FR-2013-01-16/html/2013-00123.htm
www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/FR-2013-01-16/html/2013-00125.htm

HarrietHarriet Behar,
Organic Specialist
Home Office: 608-872-2164

harriet@mosesorganic.org

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