Size doesn't matter for microbes
Congress passed the Food Safety and Modernization Act in 2010, and farmers and processors are only now getting a look at rules proposed by the Food and Drug Administration to put the thing into effect.
The idea behind the bill and the new regulations is to mandate some best safety practices for producers and processors, and to make it easier for regulators to trace foodborne illnesses back to their source.
From the outset, small-scale producers and processors, the definition of which varied widely depending on who was talking, worried about the costs of the regulations. Some thought they didn't need regulating because of their production methods or their end markets.
After intense lobbying, Congress carved out exemptions. But as we said as the bill was debated, exempting some classes of producers from safety standards doesn't make sense. As it turns out, food companies who buy from producers agree.
Under the FDA's proposal, farmers who sell less than $25,000 in crops would be exempt from the regulations.
Growers who mostly sell directly to consumers or local restaurants and earn less than $500,000 would receive a "qualified exemption" that could be withdrawn if they're linked to an illness outbreak or it's necessary to protect public health.
The agency is considering exemptions for packers and processors with fewer than 500 employees who earn less than a certain income -- ranging from $250,000 to $1 million under several options in the proposal.
The unfortunate truth is that disease pathogens can't tell a big farm from a small farm, and can find their way onto even the most meticulously tended crop. People can and do get sick from food they buy at big grocery stores, and food they buy from small-scale producers at local farmers' markets.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says there are around 76 million U.S. cases of foodborne illness annually, resulting in 325,000 hospitalizations and 5,000 deaths. A great many of these cases begin in the home: undercooked meat, cross-contamination in the kitchen and perishables left out too long. But a significant number of high-profile outbreaks have their origins on the farm.
A consumer who gets sick cares little about what methods were used to grow the food, or the size and ownership structure of the farm on which the food was grown. You can bet that their lawyer will only consider the size of the farm or processor when determining the amount of the settlement.
So many processors are wisely telling their suppliers that they aren't going to buy product from producers who don't follow the rules, despite any exemption they might enjoy under the law.
We think scale-appropriate measures could have been required that would have minimized the expense of compliance on small producers while still meeting the standard. The exemptions will give consumers a false sense that products from small-scale producers are somehow safer than the regulated product.
When that proves not to be true, all producers will be forced to weather the consequences.