Food Safety Trivia: What Do Local Farms and Industrial Food Manufacturers Have in Common?

Ben Tettlebaum

Answer:  The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) threatens to treat both of them the same under its proposed food safety rules.

The proposed regulations could force thousands of small farms across the country to comply with expensive and environmentally damaging standards meant for industrial-scale operations.  The rules could also ensnare flourishing urban farms and gardens that provide low-income communities with economic opportunities and access to fresh food.  Grappling with already slim profit margins, some small farmers might be forced to shut down.  Even FDA believes the proposed rules “will have a significant economic impact on a substantial number of small entities.detail-FruitMarket

Food safety is critical—no doubt.  But one-size-fits-all regulations that force small farms out of business won’t make our food safer.  Growing food on an industrial farm and then moving it through complex supply chains multiplies the number of critical points where contamination can occur.

What’s at stake?  Farmers’ markets, community-supported agriculture, and the irreplaceable value small farms bring to your community.  All this spells trouble for healthier local food, farm conservation, habitat preservation, and curbing greenhouse gas emissions.

Economically, small farms and industrial manufacturers are like apples and oranges.  According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, though small farms make up 94 percent of all U.S. farms, they receive far less than half of all gross farm sales revenue.  Just as striking, businesses with more than one million dollars in total annual food sales produce over 98 percent of all food manufactured in the United States.  Consolidation of our nation’s food system has wreaked havoc on our health, communities, and environment.

Fortunately, local farms and food businesses are growing.  So why would FDA want to squash them?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that foodborne diseases sicken roughly 48 million Americans every year.  In response to outbreaks and growing concern, in 2011 President Obama signed into law the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA).  The FSMA is the first major update to federal food safety laws for produce and most processed foods since 1938.  It gives FDA the power to prevent—instead of react to—food safety problems.  For the first time, FDA will regulate on-farm activities.

The proposed Produce Safety Rule sets safety standards for growing, harvesting, packing, and holding fresh produce on farms.  The proposed Preventive Controls Rule creates food safety measures for facilities, including those on farms, that process food.

Unfortunately, as proposed, the rules fall far short of creating a safe and responsible food system.  The Produce Safety Rule undermines on-farm conservation, USDA organic farming practices, and water, soil, and wildlife protections.  The financial cost of complying with the requirements that erode these conservation measures will heavily burden small farmers, while damaging natural resources.  The Preventive Controls Rule risks punishing small farmers for diversifying what they grow and process.  FDA needs to clarify key terms to ensure the rule protects small farms, as the FSMA requires.

Both rules exempt some smaller farms.  But FDA can take away the exemption without adequate due process.  And the conditions under which FDA can withdraw the exemption remain unclear.  This resulting uncertainty will force small farmers to expend significant time and money on burdensome recordkeeping just in case FDA decides to withdraw the exemption—recordkeeping the exemption was designed to alleviate!  FDA should outline a clear, fair process for withdrawing a farmer’s protected status, and offer a way for the farmer to regain it.

These are just a few of the problems.  Ultimately, crushing small farms and food businesses with industrial-scale regulation is not the path to greater food safety.

Stay tuned for additional CLF blog posts on what you need to know to submit comments to FDA on these important rules. Meanwhile, learn more at the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition’s FSMA Action Center.  With your help, we can protect local farms—vital to the health and economic prosperity of New England.

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