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Grand Valley farmers could be hurt by federal food-safety bill

By Bill Grant |

Imagine a summer in the Grand Valley with no succulent honeydews, yellow Juan Canaries or juicy green watermelons from the fields of Green River, Utah. It could happen if a food safety bill working its way through Congress is not changed.

If the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act of 2009 (SB 510) passes the Senate without significant change, no field-ripened Green River melons for Grand Junction could be one result. Under this law, nearby growers could not cross state lines to sell their produce in local farmers’ markets or co-ops without conforming to interstate commerce regulations.

The vendors who bring their melons to town in pickups lined with straw could never meet these regulations.

But Utah melons would be only one casualty of over-regulation of farming for local markets.

Without significant revision of SB 510, the small farms that supply fruits and vegetables to local farmers’ markets, or sell them directly from the farm to customers, could be seriously impacted. In a worst-case scenario, small independent farmers could be forced out of business by excessive regulation.

Already passed by the House as HR 2749, Senate Bill 510 is a well-intentioned effort to require more effective sanitation to protect consumers from outbreaks of salmonella, e-coli and other food borne illnesses.

Directed toward large industrial food processors, which distribute their products over a wide area, these kinds of regulation make sense. As frequent disease outbreaks demonstrate, they are necessary for public safety.

However, small farms that supply local markets and individual customers do not pose the same risks to consumers. They are already regulated by state and local agencies. Recent disease outbreaks from contaminated agricultural products — spinach, peppers, peanuts, hamburger — all resulted from industrialized food-supply chains serving national and international markets. Small farmers are an inconsequential contributor to contaminated-food problems.

While the House bill implicitly recognizes the difference in scale of large industrial food production and small independent farms, the bill contains no provision to ensure that FDA rulemaking will protect the small, diversified and organic farms that serve local markets from the burden of inappropriate federal rules.

In addition to growers, local marketing by small bakeries, home canned jam, jelly and preserve makers, and even fermented vegetables such as sauerkraut or pickles, could be subjected to industrial-type regulation.

As an editorial in The Oregonian put it, “We need our congressional representatives to stand up for local foods, as well as for food safety. The two are not at odds. State and local health and sanitation laws already govern local food processing. Direct-market farms and … products from them are inherently traceable and accountable to the consumer and to the health regulators, should problems arise.”

One of the most promising ways to deliver fresher and more nutritious agricultural products to American consumers is the local-foods movement. In addition to delivering healthy, fresh, locally produced vegetables, meats, fruits, dairy and locally preserved and canned products, local food consumption can help reduce the carbon footprint resulting from energy consumption in growing, harvesting and transporting industrially produced food.

Recently, the Western Organization of Resource Councils coordinated a letter signed by “22 grass roots organizations urging U.S. senators to make changes in pending federal food safety legislation to ensure that the option to select fresh, wholesome, locally produced and processed foods is not denied to consumers.”

Although 3rd District Rep. John Salazar was a cosponsor of the industry-friendly House bill, our two Colorado senators have not yet taken a public position on SB 510. Unfortunately, both bills subject small, local food producers to broad federal oversight, including increased regulations and record keeping. As the WORC letter points out, “increased penalties and fees created by these bills will have chilling, possibly fatal, impacts on the re-emergence of small businesses built around food in rural and urban America.”

Since some lobbyists are pushing for a Senate vote early in the New Year, Colorado consumers should contact Sens. Mark Udall and Michael Bennet and urge them to offer amendments to exempt small farms serving local markets from regulation designed to regulate the excesses of agribusiness.

Unless legislators carve out regulatory exceptions for local market farmers and craft food processors, we could see much of our locally produced food disappear, along with those Green River melons.

Bill Grant lives in Grand Junction. He can be reached at [email protected].

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