Produce, milk, meat, eggs, nuts, and all manner of processed foods have made people sick in recent years, and Congress has been understandably itching to cook up a big pot of food safety legislation. The result, Senate Bill 510, is likely headed for a vote soon in the current lame-duck session.
On the surface, food safety is an issue most everyone can get behind. But 510’s regulatory details offer plenty of points for contention. Small farmers and their supporters, as could be expected, are pitted against the large food factories. And the factory farmers have an unlikely ally: the food safety crowd, many of whom are motivated by the firsthand experience of losing a loved one to food poisoning.
“It’s ironic that some food safety organizations want to strap small farms with one-size-fits-all regulations – regulations designed for industrial scale producers. Small farms produce our safest food. Why on Earth would anyone interested in food safety want to put them out of business?” says Paul Hubbard of the Missoula County Food and Agriculture Coalition. “Whether those nutrients come from a factory farm via Walmart or the farmers market is inconsequential to these groups, as long as the food isn’t infected with pathogens.”
By aligning themselves with a mechanized, sterilized, and seemingly more scientific ideal for achieving food safety, organizations like Safe Tables are throwing in with factory farms, industrial feedlots and slaughterhouses, as they help throw family farms under the bus.
All of the outbreaks, including the deadly E. coli and salmonella poisonings that have recently affected our nation’s food supply, have been created by the grinding gears of economies of scale. Compounding the safety issue is the difficulty of tracing food that’s processed along with other foods from different farms in different places. Such conditions have been creating perfect storms of food-borne illness that have become disturbingly frequent, and the senate bill directs the FDA to ride herd on the food factories and rein in the many atrocities resulting from big food gone wild.
Since the earliest drafts of S.510 began circulating over a year ago, small farm advocates have worried that the bill, and the agencies that enforce it, primarily the FDA, might hold small farms to the same standard as factory farms. This would mean more paperwork, more fees, and more infrastructure requirements.
Josh Slotnick, a salad grower in Missoula, Mont., estimates the lettuce-washing shed he fears S.510 will require him to build would cost about $100,000. Slotnick sells locally to farmers markets, restaurants, a grower’s cooperative and local grocery stores. He says there hasn’t been a problem with his family farm’s greens, but if there were one it would be identified and addressed quickly. “Why should I have to follow the same rules as the companies that are washing half the nation’s spinach in the same sink?”
It’s often pointed out that when you sell produce locally, directly to the consumer, there are added measures of quality control and accountability built into the system. And while small farms like Slotnick’s would continue to be subject to regulation by local government under S.510, large food factories have been able to skirt local regulations because they aren’t marketing within local jurisdictions.
A recent amendment to S.510 proposed by Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) aims to decouple the push for food safety from the possible regulatory trampling of small farms. The amendment would exempt from regulation farms that market within 275 miles and earn less than $500,000 per year.
Most small farm advocates approve of the principle if not the numbers. The amendment would spare many small farms financial hardship. But at the same time, many small farm advocates feel that using 275 miles and $500,000 as the cutoffs sets too high a bar, size-wise, and that it could allow operations that amount to small-scale food factories to escape regulation.
Some food safety cheerleaders think any exemption is too much. “Too much paperwork, too many rules, not enough time, and slim profit margins are common complaints that are supposedly fixed by the Tester amendment,” wrote Kathleen Chrismer, a food safety advocate, in a recent S.510 discussion on Grist.com. “However, let me point to approximately 5,000 deaths that occur every year as a result of food borne illness.”
One small farm advocate, who prefers to remain anonymous, voiced his frustration: “They look at the Tester amendment and instead of thinking ‘Oh, small farms already grow safe food’ they’re like ‘why should we exempt small farmers from having to produce safe food?’”
Not all food safety advocates are as willing to brush away the concerns of farmers. Sandra Eskin, director of the Food Safety Campaign for The Pew Charitable Trusts, told Food Safety News that she has concerns about the Tester amendment. Her group wants to further narrow the radius of what qualifies as local under the Tester exemptions. She also believes any food that’s exempt from the law should be disclosed as such.
Whatever numbers are chosen to define “local” and “small,” what’s most important, from the perspective of small farms, is that some form of distinction, however imperfect, between big and small, local and non-local, be factored in.
Late breaking news: The amendment also now gives the FDA authority to revoke its small farm exemption if the farm in question is linked to a disease outbreak.
Ari LeVaux syndicates her food column nationally. You can contact her @ firstname.lastname@example.org.