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Small Farms Worried About New Food Safety Bill

Small Farms Worried About New Food Safety Bill

During the past few years, the growing popularity of local foods has been a boon to both supermarkets and independent farmers. Shoppers view local foods as fresher, and they like having the opportunity to support their local economy. Fun events like outdoor farmers' markets help retailers build a reputation for supporting the local community.

But, a lot of small farmers are concerned about a bill being debated in the House this month β€” H.R. 2749, the Food Safety Enhancement Act of 2009.

If passed in its current form, the bill would give the Food and Drug Administration new authority to oversee on-farm production activities, and would expand the FDA's authority to quarantine geographic areas for certain foods when illness outbreaks occur, among other powers.

Large farms, of course, have their own set of concerns about the bill, including new fees for inspections, new penalties for compliance problems, and new paperwork and traceability requirements. But the bill does not distinguish between large farms and small ones, and those fees, penalties and new requirements become more and more onerous the smaller the farming operation.

And, while the bill has been amended since it first appeared in June, directing the FDA β€œto take into consideration, consistent with ensuring enforceable public health protection, the impact on small-scale and diversified farms,” the new requirements would still seem to apply to all farmers that performed even the most minimal processing on-site, such as washing greens, making jams or preserves, or simply cutting fruits or vegetables.

Everyone wants the food supply to be as safe as possible, and it's good that the federal government is making an effort to address problems that have led to dozens of major, multi-state foodborne illness outbreaks in recent years.

But let's be realistic. When it comes to food safety, small farms are not the problem. If an independent grower takes a load of spinach to a farmers' market in Kansas, and that spinach makes 10 people sick, it's unfortunate, but it's hardly a crisis. People won't start turning up ill in Maine, Florida and Oregon. There won't be any international headlines, and the FDA won't have to go on the nightly news warning the entire country to avoid eating spinach while they take a few weeks to find the source of the problem.

Small farms cause small outbreaks when they cause them at all. Big farms, big packers and big processors are the only operations with the scale to cause the big problems that these new regulations would purport to solve. That's not an indictment of the current state of U.S. agribusiness, it's just the plain truth in this case.

Legislators really need to make an effort to target any new food safety legislation on the problems that have led to major outbreaks in the past, rather than writing blanket bills that could inadvertently impose a new series of barriers to the growth of small farms.

With new food safety legislation, Congress needs to distinguish between independent farmers and farms with national scope.

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