In the summer of 2009, I wrote a column in this space arguing that pending federal food safety legislation should exempt small farmers from many of the new rules that may soon apply to large agribusiness operations. Admittedly, food that's contaminated on a small farm can make a person just as sick as food grown by an international company, but small growers who sell their crops locally don't have the scale to cause a national outbreak that threatens thousands of people. New legislation should recognize this reduced risk and essentially let these small independents off the hook.
During the past 15 months, my views on this issue have changed considerably.
First, in April, Michael Taylor, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's deputy commissioner for food, spoke at the United Fresh Produce Association's annual trade show, and said that the FDA was already working to ensure that these pending regulations are “risk-based and scale-appropriate.”
There's no reason not to believe Taylor. It's true that the Food Safety Modernization Act would increase the FDA's authority and expand its resources. But some independent growers and food activism groups seem to fear that the agency will use these powers to harass small farmers and systematically drive them out of business. That course of action would require a substantial portion of the FDA's new inspectors allocated by the bill, and it simply wouldn't make much sense.
Second, compliance costs are a more plausible concern for small growers, but thousands of small farms throughout the U.S. are already complying with safety standards set by the retailers and packers that they work with. These federal standards would be similar, and generally far less onerous than the bill's opponents have claimed. Mandating fair standards for everyone never drove everyone out of business.
Third, these safety mandates would serve the local food movement's own best interest. During a panel on local food at the recent Produce Marketing Association Fresh Summit convention, Dave Corsi, vice president of produce for Wegmans, noted that a proprietary survey conducted by his company had revealed that consumers view local foods as safer than conventional foods. Wegmans sets standards for all the local growers that it works with, and even helps pay for their initial third-party audits. But, like most retailers, Corsi emphasized that safety should never be used for marketing purposes.
The fact is, the local foods movement is enjoying an all-purpose halo effect right now, but advocates can't take safety for granted. It's still highly unlikely that a farmers' market will ever cause a multi-state outbreak. But, the Internet and social media tools will magnify the effect of minor outbreaks in the future. If small growers want to maintain their wholesome image, they should expect all of their peers to be meeting the same standards for safety.