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Family farmers fear feds

Food-safety bills may cater to agribusiness at the expense of small farms

By Sena Christian |

Poison pill? Critics say if new federal regulations are passed, it could financially kill small farmers.

In response to salmonella and E. coli outbreaks during recent years, the federal government is developing new food-safety regulations. But opponents claim the new rules are being written by and for large farmers and don’t consider the impact on small producers.

“The last time our food-safety laws had major reforms, President Eisenhower was in office,” said U.S. Rep. Jim Costa, co-author of the legislation, when he introduced it in April. “Much has changed since then; American consumers deserve to have confidence in their food supply, and American farmers and processors are doing everything possible to produce the safest food in the world.”

Costa’s San Joaquin Valley constituents include some of the largest agribusinesses in the state. Advocates for small farmers claim the new regulations paint with too broad of a brush and could force many small and organic producers out of business.

“It’s fine for [big ag], so they want to impose it on everybody else,” said Dave Runsten, policy director for the California Alliance With Family Farmers, based in Davis.

Two bills now in Congress focus on the prevention of food-borne illnesses, including the Food Safety Modernization Act and Safe Food Enforcement, Assessment, Standards and Targeting Act, otherwise known as the Safe FEAST Act. These consumer-driven pieces of legislation, according to Runsten, deal with the breakdown of our national food system, but only consider one particular system—the industrialized one. It may make sense to attempt to fix the system from which the majority of American consumers get their food, but sustainable-agriculture proponents worry the one-size-fits-all approach may be at their expense.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration regulates the produce industry, while the U.S. Department of Agriculture has authority over the meat industry. This distinction has long concerned organic farmers who argue that the FDA doesn’t have the knowledge to regulate farming. If passed, the bills in Congress would grant the FDA broader authority.

“We don’t want the FDA given the authority to write one set of rules for all the farmers in the United States,” Runsten said.

Additionally, the legislation would establish a Food Safety Administration within the Department of Health and Human Services. The bills would also increase the frequency of inspections of food-processing facilities, and if passed, the bills grant the FDA authority to mandate recalls.

While CAFF supports some aspects of the current legislation, the organization “wants to make sure they focus on things that are truly risky,” Runsten said.

Highest on the risk list, according to CAFF: large-scale food processing, in which food from various sources is mixed together, so one contaminated crop could infect everything. Additionally, these plants are damp and provide a perfect breeding ground for pathogens. Although the produce is cleaned by chlorine, it doesn’t necessarily kill all the bacteria.

A few years ago, CAFF witnessed what it considers a similarly misplaced attempt to improve food safety. Following the 2006 E. coli outbreak linked to spinach that killed three people and sickened hundreds, the industry developed the California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement. Handlers and buyers signed on, promising to only buy from growers who followed the agreement, which leaves out organic growers whose biological farming methods are deemed high-risk. But sustainable farmers weren’t to blame for the E. coli outbreak; large-scale food processing was the culprit.

The federal government is currently developing regulations for melons, tomatoes and leafy greens. Small farmers could be exempted, but that hasn’t happened yet.

Meanwhile, CAFF is negotiating for regulations that acknowledge the reality of sustainable farming. For instance, a diversified organic farmer might produce 50 different crops on his farm; how many rules will this farmer have to follow, and what if the rules conflict? Government regulations, Runsten said, assume there’s one group of lettuce growers and they all grow on large acreages. But that’s not how a local-food system composed of family and organic farmers works. CAFF would prefer crop-specific rules that take into account the philosophies and practices of sustainable agriculture.

“They think farms should be this sterile, clean place,” Runsten said. “They get upset by animals and small children and birds. A farm is a dirty place. That’s just the nature of it.”

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