|How can we fix the food safety system without hurting family farmers?|
I keep hearing threats that small and organic farmers are at risk with new food safety legislation being considered in Congress. At the same time it seems like there are outbreaks in the news every other month. How can we fix the food safety system without hurting family farmers?
There has been a flurry of information (and misinformation) circulating around the internet in recent weeks regarding the potential threats of new food safety legislation. At the same time, some pretty serious food safety scares have exposed the vulnerabilities of an increasingly industrial food system as well as the inability of our country’s neglected inspection system to ensure safe food. I was glad to see you raise the question of what this all means for family farmers, as there is the very real potential for new laws and regulations to place an unfair burden on many family farmers, enough to put some of them out of business. To help us navigate this complicated issue, I thought it best to first look at the current state of regulation, raise some important considerations for reform, and provide a quick update on the food safety bills being considered in congress.
Much Room for Improvement...
Here’s a bewildering example that really captures the flawed system: It turns out that facilities that produce closed-face sandwiches are inspected on average once every 5 years by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), while facilities that produce open-faced sandwiches are inspected daily (yes, daily)by the Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS), a sub-agency of the USDA. In other words, the federal inspection of a turkey sandwich depends on if it has one or two slices of bread!
Fixing for Change...
Considering the dismal state of affairs from which reform would begin, it would seem that any changes to food safety regulation would necessarily be improvements. Yet without clear guidance, there is the grave risk that new regulation will settle on a one-size-fits-all solution catered to industrial-scale production and processing. This kind of thinking will only encourage the growth of industrial systems, many of which are at the root of the problem. In the meantime, small and mid-sized family farmers, local and regional food systems, and diversified, sustainable and organic producers that by their very design are less susceptible to large-scale contamination and outbreak, will be jeopardized.
Instead, we must demand a regulatory system that...
Reform in the Works…
With all the distraction over H.R. 875, Representative John Dingell’s much less favorable bill, H.R. 759, gained traction without much of a peep. The bill elicits some very serious concerns, involving mandatory and expensive electronic recordkeeping and inspection fees that are prohibitive for smaller and diversified farmers and processors.
Representative Jim Costa’s bill, H.R. 1332, is perhaps the most worrisome, and would set up a fee-based system of record keeping for produce, similar to the HACCP (Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point) program for meat. These requirements are not scale-appropriate, and have forced many small slaughterhouses serving local and niche-markets out of business.
According to a recent update from Farm Aid-funded group and partner, the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, H.R. 759 is expected to move forward in Congress as the framework for a food safety bill that is also expected to contain certain sections of H.R. 875 and H.R. 1332. Most action is anticipated before Memorial Day.
What You Can Do:
As with most legislation, these food safety bills are intended to provide a skeleton for reform. While we can and should fight for family-farm friendly amendments, many of the fine points will be added once a bill has passed through the halls of Congress and translated into rules of regulation at the agency level. As the saying goes: “The devil is in the details.” It is with these details that we must stay engaged to ensure that any developments in food safety inspection support the diversity of farms and processing facilities that contribute to a vibrant, sustainable and safe food system in America. We will be sure to keep you informed of opportunities for action.
Our farmer story this month highlights another controversial food safety program, the National Animal Identification System or NAIS. Click here to read Donley Darnell’s story and for more information on how to weigh in on this important issue.
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