Ask Farm Aid | March 10, 2010

What’s up with food safety? Could new laws hurt family farmers?

March 2010
Hey Alicia and Farm Aid folks,

Do you have any updates about the food safety legislation sitting in Congress right now? I know we have to do something about America’s lousy food safety problems, but I heard this bill threatens family farmers. Is that true and if so, what can we do about it?

Thanks Farm Aid!
Jeffrey W.
Rochester, NY

Well, well, Jeffrey, funny you should ask. There have been a number of important developments on food safety legislation since the last time Hilde wrote about it and, importantly, the problem of food safety in our country has not gone away.

As I write, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is in the middle of a massive food recall for all products containing hydrolyzed vegetable protein (HVP), a flavor enhancer used in processed foods (including soups, hot dogs, dips, dressings, and snack foods, to name a few). It was recently discovered that some HVP is contaminated with the bacteria Salmonella. While no illnesses have been reported yet, it’s projected that this could be the largest food recall in U.S. history given the pervasive use of HVP in our food system.

The news is just the latest of hundreds of food safety headlines: E.coli in our spinach, melamine in our baby formula, toxic peanuts, contaminated tomatoes, the sorry list goes on. The Produce Safety Project recently reported that food-borne illnesses cost the nation a whopping $152 billion each year.[1] It is an expensive, scary, and at-times tragic issue plaguing our country.

It’s a Jungle Out There
Today we have a confusing regulatory system designed without a clear strategy for ensuring food safety. In total, the responsibility of food safety oversight is shared by 15 federal agencies and is based on a tangled web of over 30 laws crafted since Upton Sinclair’s famous 1906 exposé of the meatpacking industry’s food safety woes, The Jungle.[2]

What’s more, the quality of government enforcement has varied over time. For decades, federal agencies charged with food safety enforcement have been understaffed and underfunded. The Bush Administration was notably lax in its approach, allowing food safety enforcement to be largely left to the industry. The consequence? Whereas the 1990s saw an average of 100 food illness outbreaks each year, this rose to 350 outbreaks annually from 2001 to 2008.[3] Yikes!

Clearly, our food safety system needs a serious overhaul. But we run the risk of making things even worse if we fail to craft an approach that ensures safety in our food supply without hurting our family farmers.

Up on the Hill and Down on the Farm: The Latest on Food Safety
To date, most regulatory measures from our government have targeted the parts of the food system most at risk for pathogen contamination: food processing, handling and manufacturing. However, food safety bills recently introduced in Congress directly or indirectly affect farms and ranches—the root of our food system, but not usually the root cause of food safety breaches.

The Senate’s FDA Food Safety Modernization Act (S. 510) is the latest piece of legislation creating buzz. Due for a vote on the Senate floor sometime this spring, S. 510 grants FDA stronger authority and enforcement tools and requires food processors to develop food-safety plans. These are good things. But, it also directs the FDA to adopt on-farm safety standards for fresh produce. This is potentially disastrous, depending on how it’s done.

A Slippery Slope
The chief concern is that regulations will promote a one-size-fits-all approach to on-farm food safety, placing disproportionate and undue burdens on small and mid-sized producers. In effect, this caters to industrial-scale producers and food processing firms, promoting their growth, which is part of our food safety problem in the first place! At it’s worst, this approach could thwart the good work of sustainable and organic farmers and serve as a formidable barrier to efforts being done around the country to develop local and regional food systems.

There is some precedent to this threat with the development of food safety measures for meat slaughtering and processing. Since the 1970’s, smaller slaughterhouses struggling to keep up with increasing federal compliance costs and rules have been pushed out of business. Over time, the number of slaughterhouses and processors plummeted nationwide, favoring centralized, large-scale facilities. This consolidation reduced profits for small and mid-sized growers who faced fewer plants to choose from, growing distances over which to ship their animals, and less negotiating power over the prices they received. These producers were often turned away by USDA-inspected facilities that did not want to work with growers at smaller volumes of meet. As a consequence, the system gradually encouraged industrial livestock production.[4]

(As an aside, the most recent federal effort in meat safety that threatened small and midsized farmers, the National Animal Identification System (NAIS), was scrapped by the Obama Administration last month. This was a huge victory, as the pricey technical animal tracking devices central to NAIS’s design were sure to punish smaller producers and put oodles of profits into the hands of private technology companies who worked closely with big players in the livestock industry.)[5]

There’s some hope for produce growers, though. Hard work by the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC), has made important improvements to the bill. S. 510 now requires better coordination between FDA and USDA and the creation of regulations that are flexible, scale-appropriate and respectful of farm diversity, particularly of organic producers. Any new food safety regulations should take these measures into consideration, not counteract or prohibit them.

In addition, NSAC worked to ensure the bill doesn’t conflict with or duplicate existing requirements for federal conservation, environmental and organic programs. Organic and sustainable farmers and ranchers already implement a number of conservation and environmental practices that reduce the risk of pathogen contamination on their land. What’s more, they refrain from using pesticides and other synthetic chemicals that pose threats to the safety of our food.

One other sign of hope: Senator Debbie Stabenow of Michigan has introduced S. 2758, the Growing Safe Food Act, as an amendment to S. 510. Stabenow’s bill offers important grants for small farmers and processors to receive food-safety training and technical assistance in order to comply with new regulations.

Missing the Mark
Still, the legislation before us is far from perfect.

Particularly with the more burdensome requirements for farmers and ranchers, new food safety regulations should prioritize the highest-risk practices and crops. In addition, NSAC argues that farmers who directly market their goods should be exempt from certain on-farm regulations. Direct marketing offers a number of risk-reducing activities, including shortening the supply chain and creating transparencies with consumers.

Current regulation generally does not address these concerns. In addition, it misses the mark by ignoring some of the most worrisome on-farm practices.

The first comes in the form of concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), also called factory farms. Microbes from animal manure, which is produced in mountainous and often dangerous quantities in large-scale CAFOs, can find their way into produce and crops fields through direct applications, runoff or contaminated waterways.

The second is the “sub-therapeutic” use of antibiotics in animal agriculture. Over 70% of all antibiotics used in the United States are fed to animals when they are not sick in order to compensate for crowded and unsanitary living conditions.[6] Over time, these practices are breeding antibiotic-resistant bacteria, linked to truly frightening public health scares, like the outbreak of MRSA (methicillin-resistantStaphylococcus aureus) from hog CAFOs in the Midwest and tainted meat sources.[7]

These pathogen sources are puzzingly absent from the federal food safety policy framework. Part of the outrage coming from some farmers on this issue is rooted in the unfairness of legislation that ignores these threats, while placing potentially crippling burdens on the farmers doing the right thing when it comes to food safety.

What you can do
No one should have to worry that the food they eat will poison them. As Farm Aid and others have emphasized, food safety legislation shouldn’t come at the expense of our nation’s best farmers and ranchers. It should not be overly burdensome to family farmers, inhibit sustainable agriculture practices, place undue burden on small and mid-scale producers, or suppress local and regional food markets. In addition, it should go after the real source of on farm food safety problems.

To get involved, first I encourage you to contact your Senators and urge them to consider the following points in any food safety legislation:

  1. directs the FDA to focus food safety standards on the riskiest on-farm activities;
  2. exempts farms selling directly to consumers and food that is clearly labeled in a way that preserves the farm’s identity throughout the supply chain from traceability requirements;
  3. incorporates the Growing Safe Food Act (S. 2758), which creates a food safety training and technical assistance program for small and mid-sized producers, processors, and wholesalers.

Not sure how to begin? You can contact your Congressional Representatives through the federal government’s Capitol switchboard at (202) 224-3121 or write to them by clicking here.

Secondly, tell a friend about this critical issue facing family farmers! It is an important, but not easily understood problem.

Third, you can donate to Farm Aid to fund our work on food safety, which includes the On Farm Food Safety Project, a national program offering technical assistance, food safety training and record-keeping tools for small and mid-scale farmers through the collaboration of growers, retailers, distributors, academics, nonprofits and some government officials. This is in addition to funding the good work of a number of groups working on this issue from coast to coast, including the Community Alliance with Family Farmers (CAFF), Agricultural Land-Based Training Association (ALBA), Florida Organic Growers(FOG), Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture (PASA), and the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC).

Thanks for the great question, Jeffrey, and for all you readers taking the time to learn about this important issue!

– Alicia

Sources:

Sources:

1. Scharff, R. L. M. (2010). Health-Related Costs from Foodborne Illness in the United States. Produce Safety Project at Georgetown University. Washington, D.C., The Pew Cheritable Trusts. March 3, 2010.

2. GAO (2010). “Revamping Federal Oversight of Food Safety.” Retrieved March 5, 2010, fromhttp://www.gao.gov/highrisk/risks/safety-security/food_safety.php.

3.Ibid.

4.Washington State Department of Agriculture (2008). Summary of Meat Processing Issues in Washington State. Olympia, WA, Washington State Department of Agriculture.

5.Food and Water Watch (2009). The Bottom Line of Trading Livestock: The Money Behind the National Animal Identification System. Washington, D.C., Food and Water Watch. July 2009.

6.Mellon, M., Benbrook, Charles, Benbrook, Karen Lutz (2001). Hogging It: Estimates of Antimicrobial Abuse in Livestock. Cambridge, MA, Union of Concerned Scientists. January 2001.

7.Kristof, N. (2009). Our Pigs, Our Food, Our Health. The New York Times. New York, New York. March 11, 2009.

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