By Harriet Behar, MOSES
Anyone who cares about locally grown food–and everyone who grows it–should be alarmed about the Food and Drug Administration’s proposed food safety regulations. These complex rules, created to implement the Food Safety Modernization Act (FMSA) passed more than two years ago, are meant to prevent food-borne illness. While written with good intent, the proposed rules threaten small- and mid-sized farms, compromise access to fresh, local produce, and cripple on-farm conservation practices.
Problems with the Proposed Rules
The proposed food safety regulations govern the handling of fresh and processed foods. The rules are similar to those for meats, which must have in place a system referred to as HACCP (Hazard Analysis Critical Control Points). I find it especially unsettling that the meat laws are used as a model, as many of the recent food recalls have originated from meat processing facilities that use the HACCP system of documenting activities to control hazards.
These regulations treat every fresh produce roadside stand or small-scale commercial kitchen making pickles and salsa the same as a massive food processing facility handling hundreds of tons of raw and finished products per day. Although there are some protections in the law for small- and mid-sized farms, including those that are organic, the proposed regulations at times ignore the letter, and many times the spirit of the law through heavy-handed rules. Testing, documentation, and restrictions replace common sense food handling. The proposed regulations do not use science to assess the level of risk, nor do they tie the strictness of the rules to the prevalence of that risk. Farmers should not have to follow arbitrary rules that treat every situation as equally dangerous.
Through these rules, the FDA shows that it does not have an understanding of how food is actually grown or handled on farms. The regulation reflects FDA expertise, which has been honed in large food processing facilities and pharmaceutical operations. I understand the need for a regulation to address the inherent risks of large-scale industrial food production, but am opposed to this “one-size-fits-all” regulatory approach.
No producer—especially not one who has face-to-face relationships with customers—wants customers to get sick. A provision of the law requiring trainings for farmers on understanding good food handling practices is not outlined in the proposed rules. The current atmosphere in Congress does not bode well for funding this necessary training, which would go far in preventing problems. It is backwards to expect farmers to meet mandated food handling practices without teaching them what they are.
The regulations also ignore due process. If a complaint were to be filed against an exempt small farming operation, there is no appeals process. There is no way to regain a small farm exemption once it is lost.
If these issues sound problematic, I have to warn you that they are just the tip of the iceberg.
Your Help is Needed
The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) has put together a stellar tool kit to help individuals and organizations make clear and hard-hitting comments to the FDA targeted at changing the bad provisions of this proposed rule. The toolkit contains templates and background material to help you craft a personal letter, which will carry a lot more weight than a form letter.
The NSAC toolkit provides clear information on the following troublesome issues with the proposed regulations.
Manure and compost: The application of manure on land used for growing food for human consumption is restricted to 9 months before the harvest of the crop. In contrast, the National Organic Program regulates 4 months between application and harvest. The regulation encourages the use of “sterilized” compost, as opposed to biologically active compost, which organic farmers know is valuable for soil health. Neither of these proposed restrictions have clear science behind them. If not changed, these could drive conventional farmers to use more synthetic fertilizers and drive organic farmers away from organic certification in order to maintain sufficient fertility to grow acceptable crops.
Precarious small farm exemption: While there is an exemption for small- and mid-sized operations, there is also a provision that the FDA can arbitrarily take away the exemption without any proof of a public health threat. If not covered by the exemption, a tremendous process of documentation and handling restrictions must be complied with for a farm to sell produce. In large operations, this compliance documentation is typically overseen by full-time employees hired specifically to do the work. There is no appeals procedure, nor a way for a small operation to eventually retrieve their exempt status after revocation. Due process is the law of the land and must be part of this regulation as well. The exclusion of an appeal process from the final regulation will have a chilling effect on all small farms, as they will operate in the shadow of a very real threat to their livelihoods.
Cost: Complying with the documentation requirements has been estimated by the FDA to require 4-6% of a farm’s gross receipts. Surveys estimate that the net profit of farms with gross incomes under $500,000 is approximately 10%. Leaving just 4-6% of the gross as net farm income, the cost of this regulation would take a significant portion of smaller farms’ very marginal profit. Farms that use surface waters to irrigate fields would be subject to burdensome costs of weekly water testing, regardless of the identification of any risks associated with that water.
These costs will make it harder for new farms to enter the marketplace. The highly popular consumer-driven local foods movement would no longer have access to the diversity of farmers they seek at farmers markets, CSAs and roadside stands, and restaurants and institutions would not find fresh, healthy, local produce for their menus.
Stifling diversification: The proposed regulation, as written, stifles the diversification of farm operations. Many young people settle on the farm with their parents, starting up a different type of operation. The proposed regulation would penalize these operations by combining the income from all activities as one farm unit when assessing if the farm meets the small farm exemption criteria. For example, if a son or daughter starts up a pick-your-own strawberry operation on the farm where the parents have a 100-cow dairy, the total gross income from that farm operation would probably go over the $500,000 exemption limit. This is unfair and removes opportunities for next generation farmers to start up their own operations. This is not the direction we need to go. Instead we need to build opportunities for beginning farmers and ranchers if we want to retain vibrant rural communities and maintain a strong population of U.S. farmers to provide our food. Homeland security means home grown food, not food from Brazil or China.
Please take a few moments to address some or all of these issues by submitting comments to the FDA. Ask your customers, friends and family to make comments, too! We do not want to lose the progress we have made at building a stronger food system that provides healthy food for consumers while allowing family farmers to make a living on their land. It is up to us to flood the FDA with strong comments NO LATER THAN NOVEMBER 15 and bring change to this proposed regulation. The future of farming is truly at stake.
Check out the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition’s Food Safety Modernization Act comment toolkit.