Organic and Local Farmers Seek Protections in Washington

CORNUCOPIA, WI: Momentum is building in Congress for new food safety reforms aimed at addressing the growing cycle of food contamination outbreaks. But concerns are also being raised cautioning legislators not to trample organic farmers, backyard gardeners, and consumers of fresh local foods in the rush to fix the nation’s food safety problems.

“There is no question that our increasingly industrialized and concentrated food production system needs a new regulatory focus,” said Will Fantle, Research Director for The Cornucopia Institute, a Wisconsin-based organic food and agriculture watchdog. “No one disputes that our food safety system is broken,” Fantle added.

In the last several years, contamination of bagged spinach, lettuce, tomatoes, peppers, beef, and peanuts have sickened thousands of Americans. And currently a massive recall of food products containing pistachios is underway.

After years of industry-friendly regulations and deteriorating budgets for inspections, holes in the food safety net have prompted some in Congress to push for new laws and increased oversight.

The legislative process, however, has sparked a flurry of internet and email activity, with some warning the agribusiness and biotechnology lobbyists are conspiring to pass legislation outlawing organic farming and home gardens. One of the pending bills, The Food Safety Modernization Act (HR 875), sponsored by Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro (D-CT), has been a lightning rod for criticism.

As a result of the blowback Congresswoman DeLauro is scrambling to assure organic advocates that they are not the target of her bill, “The purpose of this bill is to improve the safety of food products derived from large industrial processing facilities by increasing the inspection frequency and safety standards at these plants.”

Attempting to quell concerns in the blogosphere, which is going viral, Congresswoman DeLauro also stated, “Organic farmers have a strong record in providing safe, high quality foods to American families and I will continue to work toward making sure that organic farming continues to thrive.”

Hearings have already begun on food safety legislation in the U.S. House of Representatives. Of the multiple bills being considered, the FDA Globalization Act (HR 759), sponsored by the most senior member of Congress, Congressman John Dingell (D-MI), appears most likely to be voted on, with elements of the other bills, including DeLauro’s, possibly incorporated into the bill.

“We have closely examined the various legislative proposals and have been talking with our contacts in Congress,” said Fantle. “We don’t believe that harming organic and local producers is the intent of these bills, but we must engage consumers and local food producers in this process to clearly express our concerns that a “one-size fits all” regulatory focus could very well seriously damage some of America’s best growers of wholesome, fresh food,” Fantle stated.

After the 2006 spinach contamination outbreak in California, that affected consumers across the country, the state adopted a regulatory model that has economically injured growers producing a diverse selection of fresh foods for local markets. It is also caused vast environmental damage as farmers are required to quarantine large tracts of land, removing vegetation and wildlife.

California’s “leafy greens” program has attracted interest at the U.S. Department of Agriculture for possible national use.

Organic farmer Eve Kaplan-Walbrecht, of Riverhead, NY, is critical of this type of plan. “They are burdening produce growers with the impossible task of “sterilizing” their farms. We need good regulatory oversight that doesn’t penalize smaller-scale owner-operated farms of farmers and marketers like me.”

While some of the nation’s food safety issues have farm origins – largely due to the inability of huge industrialized conventional livestock facilities to properly manage their mountains of manure, contaminated with lethal pathogens – many E. coli and salmonella outbreaks originate at processing facilities. This year’s outbreak of salmonella in peanut products has been traced to unsanitary conditions at a massive processing plant. And now, the FDA has issued a warning about contaminated pistachios, which appear to have also been tainted during the processing or storage of the nuts or finished processed food products.

“We don’t want organic family farmers to be made scapegoats and lose their markets because of objectionable food treatment practices or recalls put in place due to sloppy practices at giant food processing facilities,” said Dr. Jesse Schwartz, the President of Living Tree Community Foods, a manufacturer of organic nut butters. “The health and well-being of America, its people, and the American land depend upon the stewardship of family farmers who are the true husbandmen of their soil, plants, and animals.”

The Cornucopia Institute is calling on farmers and consumers to stand up for and protect organic and sustainable local farmers. “Organic, local producers of high quality foods are part of our nation’s food safety solution – not part of the problem,” said Fantle.

Ronnie Cummins of the Organic Consumers Association said that citizens, who are seeking safer and nutritionally superior food are willing to pay a premium for organics, and, “In order for consumers to have continued access to this high quality food family size farmers must be protected from regressive regulation.”

An action alert released by Cornucopia provides talking points and guidance for consumers and farmers interested in contacting their legislators to urge protection of organic and local food production. It can be found on Cornucopia’s web page at https://www.cornucopia.org/2009/03/action-alert-critical-pending-food-safety-legislation/

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Additional comments from Congresswoman DeLauro:

“My bill does not ban organic farming or require organic farms to use certain types of seeds or fertilizer.  I have always been a champion in promoting organic farming and access to locally-grown foods.”

“I have always been a champion in promoting organic farming and access to locally grown foods. In fact, I have had the pleasure of throwing out the first cabbage at the opening of the farmers’ market in my hometown of New Haven, Connecticut.”

“We need to make sure that the problems highlighted during the recent salmonella outbreak involving peanut butter products are not repeated.”

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