Food safety and liability

During my recent TV interview on food safety legislation, a new angle on the whole food safety regulation hit me, which the reporter found so interesting that she set the camera back up and filmed me talking about it (though they didn’t end up using it). Right now, it costs us lots of money annually to have farm liability insurance, including product liability, which we feel we need to avoid losing everything to a frivolous lawsuit or an innocent mistake. Yet the government is working to set up massive new regulations that would tightly define how we’re allowed to produce “safe” food. So let’s think about this: if I follow all these new FDA regulations, clearly that implies the food I’m producing is safe, right? If it doesn’t, the law isn’t worth crap. So if I’m following the regulations that are forced on me, I shouldn’t have to ALSO carry expensive liability insurance, because the government’s new regulations are supposed to define and enforce what safe food production is.

I might be more inclined to play along with these new rules if they come with a guarantee that the government will make me immune to liability as long as I follow the rules. As it is, though, we’re going to get hit from both directions. We’ll be shut down if we DON’T jump through all the government hoops defining “safe” food, but none of those rules actually carry any legal protection or meaning when it comes to our liability. So we’ll lose money complying with all this crap AND lose money paying for expensive liability insurance.

Also, most of the proposed rules are based on process, not product. They don’t define what safe food is, they define how safe food should be produced. They say “do this, that, and this, and the food will be safe” but don’t actually define what the end result should be. In other words, in theory they can set a safe allowable level for, say, E coli. If that level can be met, who cares HOW it’s met? Maybe Dole and I will find different paths to that safe level that work well for each of us. But right now, the legislation assumes that if Dole and I both follow the same strict production method, that will make the food safe. It’s silly.

The real kicker here is that liability insurance is a joke; no agent will ever inspect our farm to see if we’re actually clean or not. Our rates are completely unrelated to how we farm; it’s just a formula somewhere. The company has no idea what we do or how we do it, and has no method for judging the actual risk or quality of our operation. But if we don’t pay their magic number, arrived at who knows how, we are completely open to losing everything through either one mistake or one misunderstanding.

The whole system is a joke, or would be if it didn’t have such real implications for real small businesses and real food supplies.

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