Ask Farm Aid | April 10, 2009

How can we fix the food safety system without hurting family farmers?

April 2009

Dear Hilde,

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?

Patricia S.
Lincoln, NE

Dear Patricia,

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…
In last month’s column, I wrote about the tangle of laws and federal agencies used to regulate genetically engineered food. If you thought that was messy, compared to food safety we were just getting started! The framework for food safety regulation in the United States is based on more than 30 laws administered by 12 federal agencies and 50 sub-agencies (not to mention expansive state laws and regulations). This highly complex “system” has emerged in a piecemeal fashion since the early 1900s, typically in reaction to threats and crises, instead of being designed with a proactive and clear strategy for addressing public health from the onset. As a result, America’s food safety system suffers from a severe lack of leadership, coordination and consistency. The technologies and inspection practices used are outdated. Staffing and funding are also an issue. Rather than being based on the volume of foods regulated and consumed, or even the demonstrated risk of food-borne illness, federal resources and public dollars are allocated based on the unruly constellation of laws and statutory requirements mentioned above, resulting in severe duplication of authority, gaps in oversight and an imbalanced allocation of resources.

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…
Generally food safety scares come and go without too much notice. Lately, however, both the public and policymakers are paying rapt attention. A recently released report from the Center for Disease Control indicated that food safety inspection in the United States has “reached a plateau in the prevention of foodborne disease,” only adding fuel to the fire. The time for a complete overhaul of America’s broken food safety system is now.

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…

  • Is consolidated, allowing synergy and efficiency in authority and public spending
  • Recognizes diversity in farming/processing methods and scale, and assesses risks accordingly
  • Does not place undue financial or administrative burdens on small, mid-sized, diversified, sustainable and/or organic producers/processors
  • Moves beyond issues of microbial contamination to the potential health impacts of chemical pesticides, manure lagoons, genetically engineered food, and other food safety implications of an increasingly industrial food system.

Reform in the Works…
In recent months, three major bills have been introduced in the House of Representatives with the hopes of revamping America’s food safety system. Representative Rosa Delauro’s bill, H.R. 875, is the strongest of the three when it comes to family farmers, and has been backed by all major food safety consumer groups. Unfortunately, the bill fell victim to a maelstrom of unfounded attacks claiming it would threaten small farmers, end organic farming and even criminalize backyard gardeners, and is more or less dead in its tracks.

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:
For starters, if you receive a frantic email about H.R. 875, bursting at the seams with exclamation points, please don’t forward on the hype. Instead, take a moment to inform your friends and family about what’s really going on, and refocus your energy (and theirs) on pushing your congressional representatives to fight for a food safety system that allows for the production of safe food from a diverse patchwork of family farms and processors.

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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