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How the Food Safety Bill May Affect the Nature of Organic Farming

America has never been known for our highly refined culinary tastes. The food powerhouses of the world tend to sneer slightly when considering the average American’s appreciation of fine food, influenced as it is by a culture that rejects savoring in favor of speed. However, hope has dawned on the horizon. The slow, but steady, movement towards street food, locally grown and organic, and small farms is reinventing how people buy, prepare, and enjoy everyday fare. Yet December 1st, 2010, the day that marked the passage of Senate Bill 510, may go down in history as the day the music died for local food in the U.S.

The Bill

Briefly, S.B. 510 is a Food Safety Bill passed by the Senate to dramatically increase the regulation of food production. To me, the key parts are the requirements for record keeping, licensing, tracking, and yearly reporting that will radically increase the time spent on paperwork, and the processing of paperwork; read: bigger FDA. Interestingly, S.B. 510 also addresses food smuggling, suggesting that in the near future if you are not a properly licensed entity, selling your Brussels sprouts at the local farmers market may make you a criminal. One caveat that was included as an amendment that could be good or bad is the exclusion of food production operations that make less than $500,000 a year. Obviously the entire bill has a wide variety of implications presumed or otherwise, so read the summary here and form your own opinion.

Saving U.S. from Ourselves

Perhaps you remember the salmonella scare caused by contaminated spinach that recently occurred, or the egg scare? Lettuce taint? Polluted poultry? Bacteria beef? So the FDA may have a legitimate point about food related illness and the need for greater regulation of the food production industry. However, what the proposed legislation glosses over is that the majority of contaminated food stock comes from spoiled food or food cross contaminated in the home. What this means is that it doesn’t matter if existing regulation, like requiring sell by dates and sterility standards, are effective or not, people are poisoning themselves. Although we often hear of salmonella as one of the primary causes of food related illness, the FDA neglects to mention that 70% of the poultry sold in the grocery store is already contaminated with salmonella, a statistic that will be unaltered by the proposed legislation. So why aren’t people dropping like flies every time we scarf up chicken nuggets? Because, quite reasonably, most people cook their food and kill the germs that cause disease, with the added benefit of making food tasty.  Logically, very little food contamination originates from fresh produce, as it turns out disease causing pathogens tend to be animal to animal or plant to plant. In the cases where produce disease outbreaks do occur, it is usually due to water contamination from upstream CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations), or from unregulated manure fertilizer. Just to put your chances of dying from eating fruits and veggies in perspective, in the U.S. over 100,000 people a year die from prescription drug interactions, while approximately 600 die from salmonella poisoning from all sources. Interestingly, prescription drugs are regulated by the FDA.

Deaths from Food Poisoning are Falling, Not Rising

While I am by no means opposed to regulation for the public’s safety, the obvious question is why increase regulation now, when deaths from food poisoning have begun falling on their own due to better sanitation and safer cooking practices. In the words of Colorado Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet, who was unaware of a mic left live after the vote: “It’s all rigged. The whole conversation is rigged”. Now, while I am by no means one to subscribe to government conspiracy theories, there does seem something a bit fishy about a lame duck Senate quickly and quietly passing a bill with such far reaching implications. Could this perhaps be related to forthcoming reductions in farm subsidies in budget balancing recommendations? Only time will tell, the fact that the American farmer’s lobby is one of the most powerful in Washington could just be a coincidence.

The Little Guys

From the sustainability perspective, the proposed legislation is not good. To begin with, the hundreds of thousands of additional reports and records that are going to be required are going to consume important natural resources as well as the resource of FDA energy. While we are still floundering for accurate FDA approved organic standards, the agency is busy making sure nobody is smuggling food. What really has people up in arms are the implications of S.B. 510. By requiring farms with revenue over $500,000 to follow more rigid standards, the government is providing a disincentive for any small farmers to expand, either by increasing crop production or hiring new employees. How convenient for the existing large farmers, that they can effectively set up roadblocks for future competition. Second, the legislation makes it nearly impossible for local farmers to provide produce to local restaurants and grocery stores by requiring an intensive paper trail and making food subject to seizure at any time, based on a subjective criteria that essentially says “if the FDA wants to.” While we’re at it, although organic farming by name is not mentioned, achieving compliance with the FDA requirements may not even be possible without using chemicals that are inherently against the nature of organic farming.

Protecting the safety and health of the public is one of the primary functions of the government, however, as with many complicated issues, where do you draw the line between protection and control? To me, I think Briscoe White from the Grower’s Exchange said it best, “Food production is too important to be left to government regulators or big farms. Small local and regional farms are close enough to their customers that they have to be accountable for the safety of the food they sell. And what makes small farms the safest source of food?  [On small farms], the farmer and his family are the first to eat what they grow. Is there a regulation that will trump that?”

Emily McClendon is an environmental marketing specialist currently working at NeboWeb. She has a B.S. in Applied Biology from Georgia Institute of Technology and is currently pursuing her M.C.R.P. in Environmental Planning, also at Georgia Institute of Technology.  She believes that communication and shared knowledge are the most important facets of conveying environmentally friendly practices. After participating in biological research, inter disciplinary planning, and interactive marketing, she is convinced a comprehensive approach is the only solution for creating a sustainable economy.

Emily McClendon
Emily McClendon is an environmental marketing specialist currently working at NeboWeb. She has a B.S. in Applied Biology from Georgia Institute of Technology and is currently pursuing her M.C.R.P. in Environmental Planning, also at Georgia Institute of Technology. She believes that communication and shared knowledge are the most important facets of conveying environmentally friendly practices. After participating in biological research, inter disciplinary planning, and interactive marketing, she is convinced a comprehensive approach is the only solution for creating a sustainable economy.
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9 thoughts on “How the Food Safety Bill May Affect the Nature of Organic Farming

  1. I was afraid this would happen when I heard that some of the big chemical companies, such as Monsanto, had an interest in this getting passed and I believe one of the Government official’s spouses worked for one of the companies. I agree with the concern for food protection. While there is concern with how a farmer maintains his crops and the concern for local contamination, this should be handled by education and county extension agencies where local meets with local. This is an educational issue and with a moderate amount of care can generally be controlled. A problem lies in transport and then in preparation and packaging. I believe that a primary place to control the potential for contamination is in the packaging end and that is where inspection needs to take place to ensure that products are washed, sanitized, prepared, and packaged properly, whether is is in plastic or can and that the proper prep times are followed. I do think the concerns about contamination from animal waste such as occurred with the spinach is something that needs to be addressed, wspecially when dealing with large suppliers selling nationally. However, what about foods coming across the borders, especially Mexico, where sanitation is poorly regulated many times. Do we require the same standards of importing as we are squeezing out of locals. I also agree that these regulations can severely hurt the small farmer and will lead to sell outs and bigger and bigger farm combines, who control all the food and all the prices.

  2. The answer lies with education. I have been in the food industry for 30 years and have seen first hand the publics lack of knowlege.
    Start with the children and have them learn about food in the classroom, manditory 3-4 classes throghout their learning. Hold companies responsible for their advertising info….make sure it is factual. We serve 1 billion meals a day in the US and everyone should understand the entire system better.

  3. Reading this article left me most fearful over the fate of small, local farms, farmer’s markets and small-batch producers. The bill summary does include this statement: “Exempts certain establishments that sell food directly to consumers, such as roadside stands, farmers markets or participants in a community supported agriculture program, from specified requirements of this Act.” Having worked intimately with a nearly 30-acre organic farm in Southern California, I can tell you getting to that $500,000 dollar mark isn’t easy for small farmers. So, hopefully this bill doesn’t “kill the music” as is insinuated pretty strongly here.

    What I remain fearful of is what the Secretary’s guidance on preventing contamination does, in fact, do to processing regulations. I don’t see how telling small growers how to grow could ever be a good thing.

  4. I have worked for over 30 years in ag extension for a land grant university. The attention to food safety both on farms and in the food processing industry in many less developed countries puts us to shame. I have seen production practices in many small “sustainable” farms in the US that makes me deeply concerned for the health of consumers. The Food Safety Bill is clearly needed and we need to find a way to include the smaller producers soon.

  5. On the positive side most organic farmers have now become acquainted with the onerous documentation of farm plans, procedures and audits necessary to comply with the USDA’s arcane National Organic Program. In some respects the new law may simply level the playing field between certified organic and conventional farmers and small processors.

    On the other hand the legislation seems to miss the vital ingredient of any real “risk-based” approach by leaving execution to “duly authorized representatives of the Secretary” (e.g. regulators). Farmers will now have to absorb the additional costs of carefully documenting their practices as well as the public’s risks. The assessment of food safety risk – normally the likelihood of contamination coupled with the severity of the pathogen – is not apparent in the new regulations. It would seem that small farmers selling into local markets – conventional or organic – now have exactly the same risk profile as large factory farms.

    The $500K cap disingenuously plays into the hands of the farmland consolidators resulting in more public risk and the irreparable loss of small and diverse farming systems. As the rest of the World honestly embraces voluntary standards and 3rd party verification to encourage “better agricultural practices” and food safety systems through market-based incentives, the US seems compelled to regulate its way out of the unique and broken system it has created. There should be little surprise that the Congressional debate was so short, private and predominated by large farm districts.

  6. But what about the right to choose what you want to eat? The simple rule is: If you don’t like the risk of death associated with your average meal, just don’t eat it!

  7. It is important for consumers to know that the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act includes provisions to protect organic farmers and producers from costly duplicative requirements. The stand-alone bill maintains language which the Organic Trade Associaton (OTA) had sought that prevents regulations forcing certified organic operations to duplicate or conflict with requirements set by the Organic Food Production Act. Specifically, the legislation prevents any regulations that would force organic operations to use prohibited materials or practices, such as irradiation, as identified by the National Organic Program.

    The legislation also includes resources and guidance for technical assistance, sponsored by Senator Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, to be provided through the states and local governments for operations that will be subject to the new law—provisions which OTA had also supported. In addition, it includes language offered by Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio to amend the traceability and record-keeping section of the bill to allow for food directly marketed from farmers to consumers or to grocery stores and food labeled with the identity of the farm which produced it. That amendment also prevents the U.S. Food and Drug Administration from requiring any farm to keep records beyond the first point of sale when the product leaves the farm, except when farms co-mingle product from multiple farms.

  8. Great. More big government telling us what to do. I won’t comply. I’ll just go around the rules and already am and have seen my profit go up. It is most unfortunate however, that my going around the rules, leaves out folks who very much would have enjoyed my healthy grown lamb. Instead of buying lamb grown down the street, these left out folks will have to buy it from New Zealand. Didn’t communist Russia tell its farmers when and how to plant?

  9. This bill requires sellers to document where they got what they sell. This is very good for consumers. Many “organic” products are not. It’s theft and the people screaming loudest are the theives. Growers are happy to document. They put forth the effort to provide quality organic products. Your contention that this bill will “radically” increase paperwork is(and that this is somehow bad) is ludicrous. I’m a certified organic grower. Please stick to topics you know something about.

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