Posted: Thursday, January 24, 2013 12:00 PM
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to consumers or local restaurants and earn less than $500,000 would receive a "qualified exemption" that could be withdrawn if they're linked to an illness outbreak or it's necessary to protect public health.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.
Posted By: Paul Underhill On: 2/28/2013
Title: Small Farms are not the problem
I find it unfortunate that the Capital Press has decided that "all farms are equal" when it comes to food safety. "Size doesn't matter for microbes" may be true, but time and distance do matter for microbes. Fact: All of the people sickened by spinach contaminated with E. Coli in 2006 bought the product on the last "sell by" date. Fact: all of those unfortunate people lived at least 2000 miles away from the fields where the spinach was grown. Clearly, people who ate that spinach closer to the harvest date did not get sick.
Fact: populations of E. Coli microbes on produce reproduce exponentially. One or two bacteria on a spinach leaf become hundreds and even thousands after 10 days or longer. The same spinach leaf consumed two days after harvest will not cause illness but 10 days later will send someone to the hospital.
Produce sold locally has a far lower risk of making people sick. This is the legitimate scientific rationale behind the Tester Amendment which exempts small farms who sell their produce within 250 miles of their farm. The exemption in the new regulations specifies both farm size and shipping distance.
If you were truly interested in speaking out for the best interests of farmers, you would be pushing for a stronger exemption than the one spelled out in the Tester Amendment. My farm sells well over a million dollars a year of produce -- and none of it travels outside the state of California. There is no scientific rationale for imposing the same regulations on my farm and on farms who ship their produce thousands of miles.
Produce makes people sick when it is shipped too farm from the farm and kept on the supermarket shelves too long, period. If the FDA was really interested in keeping people from getting sick from eating fresh produce, they would be encouraging more farmers to grow for local markets. Instead, their new regulations will make it harder for smaller farms to compete with the big shippers and processors that are 100% responsible for all the food-borne illness outbreaks.
There is no language in the new FDA regulations limiting the amount of time fresh produce can be held before sale, despite ample proof that time and distance are the most important factors when people get sick from produce. You want to take up a real cause? Why not focus some editorial horsepower on that issue.