Produce Safety Bill May Make Farmer’s Markets A Thing Of The Past

July 12th, 2010

The Raleigh Telegram
By Olivia Barrow

RALEIGH – With the U.S. Senate preparing to overhaul the nation’s food safety laws through a bill that passed committee called the Food Safety Modernization Act of 2009 (S510), Senator Kay Hagan (D-N.C.) has co-sponsored an amendment to exempt small farmers from the added safety requirements of the bill.

The terms of Hagan’s amendment are still in flux, but Hagan said she is committed to ensuring that North Carolina’s family farms are not subject to additional and unnecessary layers of federal regulation.

In its current form, the bill will require the Food and Drug Administration to create new regulations about the production of fruits, vegetables and nuts. The FDA guidelines would not regulate meat and poultry production.

The primary goals of the new regulations are the prevention of problems and the ability to trace a contaminated food back to the field it was grown in within 48 hours.

In order to achieve the rigorous traceability goals, the Food and Drug Administration will have to increase requirements for recordkeeping, which will cost farmers time and money.

One of the more contentious provisions of the bill would require farmers who sell to the public to get the contact information from every single customer. Some customers at roadside stands might balk at giving a stranger their personal information just to buy a cucumber, especially when they can buy some from the grocery store without having to give up their name and address.

Additional costs incurred by the bill will likely include purchasing new sanitary harvest containers, toilet facilities and hand-washing stations.

There are provisions in the bill that would also require farmers to register with the FDA, paying a $500 yearly fee and also undergo safety inspections every year. Some media reports say the inspections could cost up to $100 an hour.

As a result, to sell some green beans to your neighbors, a small farmer may have to pay as much as $1000 to satisfy government regulations before they even sell a single bushel.

Many local farmers and farmer’s market coordinators in North Carolina have expressed their outrage at the bill, especially as the public have shown an increased interest in buying food from local sources.

“In regards to the new ‘food safety’ law i think it’s a shame,” said Jason Stegall, who operates two farmer’s markets in the Raleigh area.

The farmer’s markets allow local food growers to sell directly to the public at higher than wholesale prices, allowing them to receive a greater return. Incurring further costs and regulations could keep many from selling to the public, he said.

“The local sustainable food system has gained great momentum over last few years,” said Stegall. “For the first time we are seeing out of work people turn to the land to do this extremely important work of providing quality all natural food at fair prices. This new law will be a huge discouragement for many as it is already a very tough job.”

“This law will definitely affect many and damper the momentum we have all worked to build up,” he added.

Another farmer in eastern North Carolina who both sells to wholesale suppliers and the general public echoed those sentiments.

“I wouldn’t be against having all farms requiring some kind of sanitation coursework, but I think when you mandate it based on something bigger, it’s always going to affect the little guy more so,” said Ben Davis, owner of a transitioning organic farm in Washington, N.C.

Many smaller farmers have asked why the bill’s provisions put small farmers that only have a few local customers in the same category with corporate-owned mega farms that feed thousands across the country.

Recognizing that the cost burden of the bill’s new requirements will be more for small farmers, Sen. Hagan is working on an amendment to exempt small or low-risk farms from some or all of the regulations.

The problem comes when you try to define “small.” One version of the amendment would exempt all farmers producing less than $500,000.

“Food safety rules and regulations should be based on science and risk, and assigning a dollar value is not necessarily an indicator of risk,” said Debbie Hamrick, director of specialty crops for the North Carolina Farm Bureau Federation.

Hamrick said the senator was considering a volume metric instead of a dollar value to determine a farm’s risk level, but the differences between types of fresh produce would cause problems with that solution as well.

“We do not want to put anyone out of business with food safety regulations,” Hamrick said. “I have never met a farmer who said he wants to make anybody sick.”

A danger inherent in exempting farmers from the regulations based on size of their farm can be seen when one segment of the market fails due to some kind of food contamination, other segments fail as well. The food market is interdependent.

Hamrick gave the example of a farmer growing a half-acre of basil. By the standards of Senator Hagan’s proposed amendment, this farm would be exempt from all new safety regulations.

However, one-half acre of basil is enough to sell wholesale. Basil occasionally has a problem with salmonella. If the basil was contaminated, the produce would be untraceable to the farm with the problem, but the market for basil in the entire region would fail. Large and small farms alike would be affected.

“The traceability requirement, if you’re requiring VIN numbers for everything that goes out, I disagree with that for small farmers,” Davis said. “It really has no bearing on small farmers if you’re selling locally.”

In addition, there is no guarantee that the FDA or government officials will correctly and quickly identify the source of the contamination even if they know all of the details of the supply chain.

The government blamed outbreaks of salmonella on tomatoes and issued warnings, only to later find that the true source of the problem was from contaminated pepper plants.

To help protect small farmers and to recognize that their impact on the food supply chain is certainly not as great as large agribusiness outfits, Hagan’s amendment includes an exemption for farmer’s markets and other direct-to-consumer markets.

“We’re all wanting to do the right thing and make sure that we have a safe food supply, while at the same time saying, ‘Look, our farmers are a critical part of our nation’s infrastructure,'” Hamrick said.

The FDA currently has the authority to make the rules and regulations that would improve safety and traceability, but as of yet it has decided not to regulate the food supply. S510 would require the FDA to make these rules in conjunction with the Department of Agriculture.

“The Food and Drug Administration’s expertise does not lie on the farm,” commented Debbie Hamrick, director of specialty crops for the North Carolina Farm Bureau Federation. “If they’re going to be the jurisdictional agency, they need to work with those folks who understand what’s going on the farm.”

Anything currently in the bill is subject to change when it is considered on the senate floor.

“From reading about the bill, it’s the big boys trying to do away with the little guys,” Washington, North Carolina farmer Ben Davis said. “What it’s doing is it’s going to require an entire new bureaucracy to try to regulate farms.”

Another farmer in North Carolina who operates a roadside stand who wished not to be identified, said that he saw many problems with the bill.

“Even if they pass it, it will be totally unenforceable,” he said. “Are they going to drive around and check every farm and vegetable stand?”

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