One of the items Congressional Democrats hope to pass during the lame-duck session is food-safety legislation that would give the Food and Drug Administration greater authority to monitor the production and processing of food that comes under its jurisdiction.
The version of the measure previously passed by the House is different than legislation passed this week in the Senate. But both would require producers and processors to pay annual registration fees, develop food-safety plans and keep extensive records to facilitate tracebacks to pinpoint the source of foodborne illnesses.
The food-safety bills have generated a fair amount of controversy within the farm and food communities. Small-scale producers and processors are particularly worried that the fees and requirements will bankrupt them.
Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., offered an amendment to address at least the financial concerns of small producers. In its simplest form, the amendment would exempt producers who sell directly to consumers and restaurants, and who have sales of less than $500,000 a year, from many of the provisions of the bill.
Tester raised the ire of United Fresh, an organization that represents produce growers, packers and processors, when he explained to the Capital Press his rationale for exempting smaller-scale producers from some of the major requirements of the bill.
"The industrial model impacts more people. With smaller production, (there are) more eyes to the egg, to the pound of lettuce," Tester said. Small producers, he added, "are not raising a commodity," but "are raising food." Industrial agriculture, he said, "takes the people out of the equation."
Really? Most farmers we know take their work seriously. Surely Tester, himself a farmer, feels this way.
Tester and his family are not small operators. They farm 1,800 acres of organic wheat, barley, lentils, peas and alfalfa. They do not sell directly to consumers and so would fit, we assume, into the category that he describes as "industrial agriculture."
Does the Tester farm raise commodities, or produce food?
According to the 2007 Ag Census, 120,859 of the nation's 2.2 million farms, or 5.5 percent, have annual sales of $500,000 or more. Those farms produce $223.8 billion worth of products, or 73 percent of the value of food and fiber produced in the United States.
A science-based food-safety policy requires a minimum standard for all producers, regardless of size. That approach would not preclude additional scale-appropriate requirements for very large operations, or for processors who send product out into wide distribution.
We share the concern of the small-scale producers who worry that all of this could put them under. No regulation should be so expensive as to put any farm operation in danger of financial ruin, or so onerous that it discourages the commercial production of food.