Food Safety Bill nears action

This is long but important and time-sensitive. Please read it.

So Senate Bill 510, the Food Safety Modernization Act, is moving along in the Senate, the last real hurdle to final passage. If you want to read a very nice, educated discusion on the issues involved, particularly as they may affect small farms, see these two online debates hosted by Grist (here and here) that offer many different and well-reasoned perspectives. See what you think, whose arguments sway you the most. I thought these passages were particularly well-phrased:

Food has become viewed as an industrial commodity capable of being produced in factories, essentially no different from cars or stoves. When there is a problem in the production system, both the industry and the government look for a technical fix for that problem and ignore the underlying biological reason that the problem arose…Related to that view of food is the view of food safety in which the regulators and industry seek to treat food as an artificial product rather than a biological one. They can mandate chlorine baths, irradiation, pasteurization, and other kill steps, but the reality is that food does not start out sterile and it can never end up sterile.

The effectiveness of the inspections will depend on whether FDA uses the catch-all “any other criteria” to truly identify high-risk facilities, namely the large-scale processors who commingle ingredients from a variety of producers and then transport them long distances to a wide range of consumers. Or will FDA continue its current track record of avoiding crackdowns on the big players, while wasting resources on inspections of the thousands of small-scale producers who do not actually pose a high risk of foodborne illness?

That last bit should make you think of Morningland Dairy. The FDA has handled them far more harshly than the big Iowa egg producer also in the news recently; apparently they have enough money and staff to crack down hard on a business if they really want to.

Senator Jon Tester of Montana has introduced a significant amendment that would help exempt small, direct-market producers from the new regulations. From his website:

“When you buy some vegetables or a jar of jam from your local farmers’ market, you’re buying the cleanest, freshest, healthiest food available, directly from the producer,” Tester said. “Family farms and ranches have enough hurdles to jump over just trying to make a living. They don’t need expensive, redundant regulation that could put them out of business.” Tester today announced two amendments he plans to introduce to the Food Safety Modernization Act, to make sure the following food producers will only be subject to state and local regulation—not new expensive federal regulations designed for industrial food factories:
– Producers that add value to food through processing and whose adjusted gross income is less than $500,000 per year;
– Producers who sell their food directly to market (such as farmers’ markets).

Tester today praised the goals of the overall bill, but warned against over-regulation of small, local producers.“Let’s face it, dangerous food-borne outbreaks don’t start with family agriculture,” Tester said. “Food produced on that scale shouldn’t be subject to the same expensive federal regulations as some big factory that mass produces food for the entire country.”

The Tester amendment will be considered soon. Please read its text (link above), and if you agree, contact your Senators in whatever state you live, asking them to support the amendment. Believe me, if we have to deal with any more B.S. regulation than we already do, this business isn’t worth it and we’ll just stop.

Below is the text we sent to Missouri Senator Claire McCaskill (a similar one was sent to Senator Kit Bond, though without the personal details since we’ve never met him).

Dear Senator McCaskill:

A few years ago, I heard you speak at the Boone County fairgrounds on an agricultural listening tour through Missouri. You may not remember, but I gave you a container of heirloom cherry tomatoes from our farm, figuring that these would be fresher and tastier than typical food on the road. You accepted them joyously, and not long afterward a reporter approached me, asking if I was the one who gave Senator McCaskill the tomatoes she’s raving about. No questions came up about food safety. Perhaps that’s not a surprise. The tomatoes grew at our farm, less than ten miles away; my wife or I picked them not more than a day before, and the tomatoes passed directly from my hands, the hands of the producer, to yours, the hands of the consumer. Producer to final consumer transactions happen all the time when customers visit producer-only farmers markets, such as the one that we sell at in Columbia. This food tends to be safe, because farmers have an incentive to make it safe: we know our customers and they know us. At the time you, and your security detail, did not seem to feel that our food was so insufficiently regulated as to pose a threat. Please help us keep it that way.

We’re writing to ask you to please support the Tester Amendment to the Food Safety Modernization Act (S. 510) so that small farms that market directly to customers, like ours, will not be unfairly burdened by additional bureaucracy or directly driven out of business by this legislation.

My wife and I own and operate Chert Hollow Farm, LLC (www.cherthollowfarm.com), a diversified farm that direct markets Certified Organic produce at the Columbia Farmers Market and to restaurants in Columbia, Mo. We grow and sell delicious, nutrient dense fruits and vegetables—foods that improve the health of those who eat them. We have every reason to be conscientious about our food handling practices; we feed ourselves from the farm, and we interact directly with our customers, many of whom are friends. We (voluntarily) abide by the National Organic Program standards, including provisions that relate to food safety. These force us to spend a significant amount of time doing paperwork—time that we could otherwise be either actively farming or learning to be better farmers. We acknowledge that small farms are not completely immune from pathogens, but more regulations and more paperwork won’t improve the food safety on our farm.

When we founded Chert Hollow Farm, we took an unutilized piece of land and turned it into an economic engine: from the sun, seeds, and healthy soil, combined with our labor and some infrastructure, the farm generates a product that would not otherwise exist. This generates tax revenue, and keeps money circulating in the community. A local food system composed of many small, diversified farms such as ours and those of other vendors at the Columbia Farmers Market is a way to build true food security. Profitable small farms also generate jobs, as the need for labor is seemingly never-ending. Thriving small farms are tax-generating, job-generating, health-improving, economic engines that run on solar energy and ultimately provide true food security.

The FDA may need regulatory authority when it comes to the big producers that have lawyers lined up ready to defend them and whose lobbyists fill positions in the agency itself (if not under one administration, then under the next). In contrast, small farms are especially vulnerable to being shut down by unscrupulous or uneducated inspectors or bureaucrats. Giving the FDA further regulatory authority over small farms will put existing farms out of business and will discourage new farmers from ever starting.

One of the reasons we chose to farm professionally, and one of the reasons we work so hard to feed ourselves, is because we do not trust the industrial food system. Please support the Tester Amendment to S. 510 so that the attempt to improve food safety does not backfire by diminishing the small-scale, local food system and its myriad of benefits.


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