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Consumers Union Holds Out Olive Branch to Sustainable Foodies

By Jill Richardson | Lavida Locavore

Throughout the food safety debate, there have been two major concerns: first, we must get legislation passed that provides real food safety reform; and second, that legislation should not harm small, sustainable farmers. Of course, those within the debate tend to place different priorities on the two goals. Some favor food safety legislation at all costs, even if it were to have some negative effects on sustainable farmers. Others would rather see no legislation at all instead of a bill that even slightly encroaches on the business of a sustainable farmer.

I've found myself caught in the middle of these two viewpoints. Obviously, we need food safety reform. But really - the small, sustainable farmers are not the major problem in our food system when it comes to safety. Can't we have our food safety reform that governs the big guys that make up 95% of our food system while leaving the other 5% alone? Sure, small, sustainable farmers aren't immune from food safety problems, but they simply don't have the capacity to sicken as many people as large operations by virtue of their small size. I believe the benefits they provide us far outweigh their risks, and leaving them alone in order to pass reforms over the rest of the system is well worth it.

Today, I'm pleased to share a statement by Jean Halloran of Consumers Union, who has been banging hard on the drum of food safety reform from the start, where they reach out to sustainable foodies to work together with them toward reform.

Jill Richardson :: Consumers Union Holds Out Olive Branch to Sustainable Foodies

Working with the Sustainable Community to Make Food Safety a Reality

By Jean Halloran, Director of Food Policy Initiatives

Consumers Union is working hard to get an FDA food safety reform bill through the Senate (H.R. 2749, the Food Safety Enhancement Act, passed the House in July). Some in the sustainable agriculture community are worried that increasing FDA's authority over food safety will be harmful to locally grown and low-input farming. CU has long advocated for organic and sustainable issues and believes that a number of changes should be made in the legislation now before the Senate to address concerns of the sustainable agriculture community. We believe these concerns can be addressed, and that we can move forward with a bill that will create seriously needed reforms in how FDA regulates food.

The main goal of the bills in Congress is to ramp up FDA oversight of food processors like Peanut Corporation of America, whose peanut butter made thousands sick and killed nine people last winter. FDA had not inspected PCA for eight years prior to the current crisis. Both the House and Senate bills require FDA to inspect high risk food processors at least once a year.

In addition, the bills also call on FDA to set food safety standards for farms that grow leafy greens, spinach, and other produce that is typically eaten raw, which have also caused illness and death. As these bills are under review, USDA is also currently considering a proposed national Leafy Green Marketing Agreement (LGMA) to regulate leafy greens. CU believes such a LGMA will fail to adequately improve the safety of raw spinach and other salad ingredients, and may well mandate practices that are damaging to the environment and organic farming , because the processing industry will set the standards itself. CU supports FDA regulation of leafy green safety that will be enforced through a transparent, open, public process that takes into account the views of consumers, environmental scientists and activists, and sustainable, small and organic farmers.

Organic, local and other types of sustainable agriculture has huge benefits for the environment as well as quality and safety benefits (through low or no pesticide use) to consumers. Unfortunately, a small or organic farm can be a source of pathogens in food, just like a large farm. The source of the outbreak of E.coli 0157:H7 in spinach in 2006, which killed three people, was a Salinas Valley farm that was in transition to organic. Certain on-farm safety requirements, such as testing irrigation water periodically for E.Coli 0157:H7, and providing bathroom facilities for farm workers, are necessary for farms that grow produce, regardless of farm size, and are currently not required of organic or conventional farms.

As small farm advocates note, one size does not fit all. Because of this, a number of provisions were added to the House food safety bill to insure that FDA's on-farm food safety rules do not conflict with organic standards and sustainable agriculture practices. CU is working to make sure that similar provisions are added to the Senate bill. The Senate bill would also benefit from provisions in the House bill that exempt small producers who sell direct to consumers (and who are thus unlikely to cause large or difficult to locate food safety outbreaks) from traceability and certain other requirements of the legislation. The fee structure established in the House bill-whereby all food processing plants, regardless of size, must pay a $500 registration fee-has also been criticized as inequitable and must be addressed (there is no fee provision in the Senate bill).

With these important changes afoot, CU believes that FDA food safety reform legislation will not hamper the development of sustainable agriculture. We desperately need Congress to pass food safety legislations to make headway against the millions of illnesses, the hundreds of thousands of hospitalizations and the 5,000 deaths that CDC estimates result from contaminated food every year.


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