New England farmers are fearful that new food safety rules will have a negative impact on both the agriculture industry and the food supply. Earlier this year the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) released two new food safety proposals encompassing 1,600 pages of text.
Farmers who do not qualify for exemptions would be mandated to document and monitor water quality, encroaching wildlife, freezer temperatures and a host of other potential food contamination hazards. A group of New England small farmers are concerned their family businesses will die under the weight of the expensive monitoring systems and paperwork which the FDA may soon require. Many of them are organic farmers.
Caroline Smith De Waal, director of food safety for the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), has no empathy for the small farmers. She feels that the owners of the agriculture businesses should already be conducting such measures regardless of the potential new FDA rules. The CSPI representative also believes that the new rules will prevent big fiscal losses for both grocery stores and farmers should another large foodborne outbreak occur.
“These are common-sense safety measures they need to be taking anyway,” she said.
Vermont farmer Joe Buley says the FDA food safety proposals could put small farmers out of business. The farmer stated that the cost associated with remaining in compliance with the new policies would inhibit his ability to grow his business.
“There’s gonna be an enormous amount of documentation, which is going to require an enormous amount of administrative time, or fairly expensive software and monitoring equipment,” Buley said.
FDA Deputy Commissioner Mike Taylor said farmers who sell less than $500,000 of farm products each year are at least partially exempt from the food safety proposals. According to Taylor’s own figures, the exempted farms comprise approximately 60 percent of the produce growers in the United States.
But the problem, according to New Hampshire Public Radio, is all the exceptions to the exemptions – for example, a farmer who turns “a cucumber or tomato harvest into soups and sauces.” Storing and processing foods can disqualify farmers.
“You’ve gotta dig a little deeper into the fine print,” Joe Buley said. “You’re going to find you’re exempt, except. And the except is gonna nail you. You’re gonna get it.”
John Bachman, a columnist for the Nashua Telegraph newspaper, said too many small farmers are exempt and will face major regulations.
“It turns out that the exemption for small farms only applies if they sell directly to consumers or to retail outlets,” Bachman wrote. “Many small farms sell to bigger farms with farm stands; others donate excess crops. Those actions eliminate the exemption. … Our farms are transparent and accountable. The source of any problem would be obvious. Why does the federal government need to get on our farmers’ backs?”
Farmers can file an appeal with the FDA, but the agency itself is the “investigator, prosecutor, judge and jury” – a system that can lead to abuses, Bachman said.
John Bachman gave examples of the new rules:
- “Everyone who goes onto a farm to pick produce must be identified and recorded, even at pick-your-own farms. Will customers have to produce a photo ID or Social Security number? Maybe not at first, but regulations are like waistlines – always expanding.
- “Water that touches produce must be tested weekly using sterile samples and laboratory analysis — expensive. Most of our farmers use a drip system, so little water gets on the produce. Sometimes, a late frost is fended off with water.
- “A field with manure fertilization must lay fallow for nine months. Spreading after harvest means no planting until mid-summer — too late for New England farmers.
- “Wooden bins for apples must be replaced with costly plastic ones. FDA director Samir Assar spoke about replacing ‘slimy, moldy bins’ — an arrogant insult to responsible farmers.”
As the backlash over the new FDA food safety proposals continues to spread among small farmers across the country, the angst may be short-lived. The Food and Drug Administration may have a big book of new rules designed to protect Americans, but Congress has yet to come up with the funding necessary to actually put the new policies into place and enforce the measures.