The plight of the small farmer

by Ari LeVaux

It’s getting difficult to name a food that hasn’t recently caused a pathogen outbreak. Bagged salad, peppers, beef, and peanuts are just some dietary staples that have been caught spreading E. coli, salmonella and other diseases. These outbreaks have inspired a legislative push to make America’s food safer, which sounds like a good thing. Unfortunately, the effort has resulted in pending and proposed legislation that, as written, threatens to punish the people and businesses that produce the safest and healthiest food of all, while depriving consumers of the opportunity to eat it.

The disease outbreaks are all coming from the Big Ag side of our food system, and the new laws aim to regulate the factory farms, processors, and distributors that are creating the problem. But the legislation also exposes small family farms to the same regulations and fees.

Food produced on small farms and marketed locally hasn’t been implicated in any of the recent outbreaks for several reasons. Small farms create fewer situations in which diseases can thrive; livestock confinement operations, for example, are swimming with E. coli, while the microbe is relatively scarce in smaller livestock operations. Food produced by large operations, already more likely to be contaminated, is fed into long supply chains where the contamination can spread during transport, storage or processing.

Food that’s grown on family farms and sold locally is usually sampled by the farmers and their families first – a built-in first line of quality control. And if there is a problem with small, local farm food, the consumer population that might be exposed is small and localized, making the problem inherently traceable. Meanwhile, state and local public health and sanitation laws are already in place to regulate Small Ag.

Nonetheless, the recently passed House Resolution 2749 and the proposed Senate Bill 510 (aka the Food Safety Modernization Act) lump Small Ag and Big Ag together in the same regulatory framework.

SB 510 as written would require small producers and processors to submit to the same cumbersome Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) system, which would add an onerous burden of paperwork, record keeping and possibly infrastructure investments to companies that don’t necessarily have the resources to handle it.

The House bill includes a fee system in which the small players subsidize the regulation of the big ones: all food processing facilities would have to pay the FDA a $500 annual fee to help cover the costs of enacting the law. This would be a drop in the bucket for large corporations like Dole and disproportionately burdensome for mom-and-pop operations that sell to their neighbors.

As written, the legislation would authorize the FDA to establish “science-based” rules governing the growth and harvesting of crops that are deemed high risk. In the event that farmers have concerns about the FDA’s designation of high-risk crops or the regulations regarding how they are grown, SB 510 mandates only three public forums during the one-year rulemaking period. Stakeholders would bear the expense of traveling great distances to one of these three meetings to voice concerns, and the FDA has a history of being insensitive to timing with regard to the realities of the farming season.

Many small farmers and consumer groups, such as the Western Organization of Resource Councils (WORC), are working to ensure SB 510 only targets companies marketing at a wholesale level for wide distribution, while exempting small farms and processors that market directly to consumers, restaurants, hospitals, schools, hotels and other local institutions. Other groups, like the Make Our Food Safe Coalition, want food safety legislation passed as soon as possible, with or without small farm exemptions.

While many are understandably frustrated that the government isn’t doing enough to protect us from food-borne illness, we can’t let the haste to make our food safer lead to crushing the producers that grow the safest food of all. It may create a short-term gain in food safety, but it would represent a long-term loss in health.

“By what extreme notion has it been decided that it’s perfectly safe to feed our kids Coco Puffs, Twinkies and Mountain Dew but it’s not safe to feed them compost-grown tomatoes and raw milk?” asked Joel Salatin, a farmer and activist in Virginia. “This food safety is a very subjective thing. If there’s one thing that stands between freedom and tyranny it’s the choice of being able to decide what to feed our own bodies. If that isn’t the most basic human freedom, I don’t know what is.” While making SB 510 more friendly to small farms is an uphill climb, it’s not without precedent. Hamil points to the FDA’s new egg rule to help minimize Salmonella enteritidis, finalized last summer, as an example of the kind of tiered regulation that could be applied to the rest of the food industry. The egg rule specifically applies only to egg producers with more than 3,000 laying hens. Hopefully that kind of scaling can make its way into the bill. And if it passes, hopefully such changes will remain after it’s reconciled with HR 2749.

If Americans are going to eat food that’s grown, processed, and combined with other ingredients in large facilities thousands of miles from where the food is ultimately consumed, enhanced supervision of all steps in that supply chain is warranted. What isn’t warranted is the application of the same regulations to small producers and processors that are part of the solution, and not part of the problem. •



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