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The Feds, The Food Safety Modernization Act, and the Farmers Caught in the Middle

February 18, 2013 |

Image Credit: FDA.

The American food system safety regulations have not experienced a major overhaul since the height of the Great Depression in 1938. On January 4, 2011 President Obama signed into law the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA). On January 4, 2013 a new produce safety rule, ‘Standards for the Growing, Harvesting, Packing, and Holding of Produce for Human Consumption,’ was proposed and looks likely to go into effect. Some farmers are concerned that the new regulation will have an adverse effect, making sustainable practices harder to follow and cost more to implement than many small producers can afford. So what’s the truth behind this federally mandated food system shakeup?

The FSMA is a vehicle for not only reacting to public health issues, but also for preventing them from occurring in the first place. Instead of waiting for producers to execute a voluntary recall of a tainted crop, the government can now force such a recall. They can also prevent suspect food from reaching grocery stores and restaurants, force importers to certify foreign food brought into the country is safe and can remove licenses and permits from the non-compliant.

Other aspects of the FSMA including the assessments, paperwork, safety plans, inspections and mandatory food handling practices have many smaller farms worried. Will they need to hire new staff? Will they need money for additional fences, additional facilities or new equipment? How will they find the time to complete the onerous paperwork requirements on an already tight schedule?

“…whats frightening now is the regulations that are going to start coming out of the FDA for small farms with vegetable handling and food safety,” shares Josie Erskine, owner of Peaceful Belly Farm in Boise, Idaho. “Those are going to be the regulations that are going to be the most scary to me. A lot of those processes are already in place on some of those larger farms but to put [them] into place on a farm that is our size… its going to cost us a chunk of change.”

Erskine echos the sentiments of many small growers who are worried what effect the new produce safety rule will have on their small operations and barely breaking even bottom lines. In most cases, because of a part of the FSMA called the Tester Amendment, it may be nothing at all.

Senator Jonn Tester, with a background in family farms, asked for a provision to be placed in the FSMA to protect small growers from being treated the same way as large scale growers. Because of this, small growers that sell directly to consumers in-state or within 275 miles of their farm that have less than $500,000 in annual sales are currently exempt from the rules and regulations of the FSMA. They are still of course required to adhere to state and local farming regulations.

So it seems if the Feds haven’t already been banging on your barnyard door they aren’t likely to start now. But that doesn’t mean taking some elements of the FSMA and applying them to your own farm, regardless of size or revenue, wouldn’t be a bad idea.

Food Safety and Regulatory Compliance expert Laura Giudici Mills of LGM Consulting comes from four generations of California farmers, teaches farmers about agricultural safety practices and has been on both sides of the food safety story. Her family farm experienced the backlash of the 2006 E.coli outbreak among California spinach farmers. As Giudici Mills explains, “I saw what happened with the FDA advisory shutting down an industry for about a month. There was no harvest, no sales of fresh spinach commodity and I saw how devastating it was.” How many small growers could survive a month long shut down during the growing or harvesting season?

“Even if you do everything right, you are still liable 100 percent. […] But here’s the thing: you shouldn’t be exempt from food safety,” states Wendy Baroli of GirlFarm, which is located on the Nevada/California border. “I am of the opinion that small farmers should organize their own farm around the idea of a gap audit. What’s your water source? Do you have a soil sample? Do you wash your greens? […] its not a bad thing to consider food safety from the perspective of just being good business people.”

Baroli decided educating herself and fellow local farmers on the recently proposed rules of the FSMA made the most sense to her and her business. Working with her state agricultural resources, Baroli undertook training with representatives from the FDA about the FSMA, reassuring herself of exemption as well as the need to have a food safety plan in place.

A food safety plan includes finding possible sources of food contamination on your property and creating ways to fix potential safety issues. This could be something as simple as hanging hand washing signs in the bathroom used by the farmhands or installing a moveable fence to separate growing produce from grazing livestock.

Putting up a new fence may seem like a simple solution to food safety contamination concerns, but who has the money for that new fence? As Giudici Mills explains, a fence is better than “losing the family farm,” which is what could happen if more than one food borne illness can be traced back to your produce or livestock. All it takes is two or more people getting sick at a farmer’s market or from a CSA basket (and reporting it to a local hospital or the public health department) and suddenly the small grower is liable, in the limelight and no longer able to claim exemption from the FSMA rules of registration with the FDA. Preventative measures are necessary on small farms, according Giudici Mills to “protect their own investment and consumer health.”

Many small farmers see the FSMA as an expensive, elaborate attack on their bottom line. Others view the food system regulations as something for larger growers to worry about. In reality, following the food safety guidelines of larger growers can protect the small farmer from liability, protect their customers and preserve their livelihood. Every year, 3,000 Americans lose their lives and one in six become ill due to a food borne illness. By having a food safety plan in place and actively working to correct possible sources of contamination on your grow site you protect your business, your customers and the future of sustainable growing.

Further Reading

Its important for small growers to realize that federally mandated food safety changes are not something they have to handle alone. Your local agricultural extension office can provide assistance and educational materials. The Produce Safety Alliance set up by Cornell University [] allows growers to stay up to date on changes to the FSMA while breaking down the facts into digestible pieces. And of course, the government’s own website [] provides the full text of the FSMA. Both sites allow you to sign up for e-mail updates. [] allows you to create a food safety plan using the tools on their website. They do not however provide training on the FSMA.

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