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Big or small, safety counts

Published on March 8, 2013 3:01AM

Last changed on April 5, 2013 9:14AM


No one is immune from the possibility of making someone sick with the food they grow, process or prepare.

The biggest food processor in the world or the smallest farm in the county could make people sick. When it happens, it's just a matter of scale. But if you happen to be one of those people whose kidneys fail or whose child dies from E. coli or another foodborne illness, the size of the farm that grew the food or the processor that packaged it doesn't matter.

Some 9 million cases of foodborne illness are caused by 31 major pathogens such as E. coli, salmonella, clampobacter and norovirus each year, but an additional 39 million cases caused by unspecified agents are also reported each year to the federal Centers for Disease Control. That means roughly 1 in 6 Americans gets food poisoning each year, according to the CDC. About 3,000 people die from it.

Whether it is the Wisconsin butcher shop whose hamburger was linked to three local E. coli cases or a national poultry company whose chicken was linked to 124 salmonella cases in 12 states, size does not exempt anyone. The farmer, the rancher, the distributor, processor or retailer are all potentially culpable.

Two years ago, Congress passed the Food Safety Modernization Act, a new law that its proponents say will help curb foodborne illnesses in the U.S. Since then, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has been writing the regulations that will put the law into effect. Two of those rules are now out for comment.

One of the most difficult issues is improving the safety of food sold to the public without imposing undue costs on producers and processors. Small farms especially do not have the resources or deep pockets that larger farms might have. Congress has attempted to take that into account by exempting farms that make less than $500,000 a year and sell most of their crops within the same state and within a 400-mile radius.

The main argument proponents of exempting small farms make is that they have a much more direct supply chain and, in the event of a problem, the source can be much more easily traced.

True enough.

Another argument is that smaller farms more closely monitor their crops. While we agree that monitoring 10 acres is easier than monitoring 1,000 acres, some things happen when no one is watching. A herd of deer walking through a strawberry farm at night distributing E. coli in their droppings can prove disastrous for a farmer and his customers who become ill, no matter the acreage or income.

While the new rules should take into account the fact that small farms lack the financial wherewithal to meet all of the criteria set forth for larger farms, it should not totally exempt them.

When an E. coli or salmonella outbreak occurs in a particular crop all growers are impacted. Some years ago, fresh spinach sickened people in California, yet growers at farmers' markets in Washington state reported their sales were down, too. That's despite no link whatsoever to the affected crop.

All farmers, large and small, have an interest in protecting their customers -- and themselves -- from outbreaks of foodborne illnesses. That is done by thoughtful rules that maintain food safety without imposing undue financial burdens on any farm.


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