When we went to Portugal in 1982, we were told not to drink the water and not to eat certain foods. However, we were enticed by cream-filled pastries and all of us lost a day in beautiful downtown Lagos hugging the porcelain. Health regulations are important. They can save lives and reduce the number of illnesses caused by food borne harmful bacteria.
In the last few months here in America, we have had meat recalls and cantaloupe recalls to remind us that proper care and handling of foods is essential. The challenge is the same as with zoning regulations – keeping regulations current to the times and achieving effective regulation, not over-regulation.
In the last decade, farmers trying to rebuild direct-to-consumer markets have faced numerous challenges with health regulations, in part because there were not good regulations in place to address small-scale operations. One example was acidified foods. Everyone recognized the need for regulations for small-scale operations, but they didn’t exist. SMADC spent over a year working with officials from Maryland Department of Agriculture and Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene to craft a Step by Step to On-Farm Processing of Acidified Foods.
With the rapid growth of farmers markets, we have seen meat and dairy products arriving at the markets, and state health officials have scurried to develop Maryland State Health Regulations that allow farmers to direct-market safe, healthy meat and dairy foods to consumers.
The next regulatory challenge for farmers will be the Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) program. Currently, they are voluntary. The fear is that they will become mandatory and that they will be unreasonable and/or prohibitively expensive, as highlighted in this story from California. In this case, there was a food safety crisis from pre-washed spinach and a deadly type of E coli bacteria. Investigators believe that they tracked the E coli to one large leafy greens farm in the Salinas Valley. As a result, farmers were urged to fence all vegetable fields and defoliate edges and ditches with herbicides and remove ponds that might attract wildlife.
There is also a question of scale. The farms in the Salinas Valley are so large that investigators had trouble tracking the problem to the source. Should the same regulations apply to large scale farms as apply to mom and pop operations? Food safety issues should be much easier for inspectors to track with direct-to-consumer sales and farm owners know that they are directly accountable for their food safety practices. The question with food health regulations will always be what are good regulations and what is over-regulation.