Despite their orneriness, farmers tend to be an optimistic crew. That is why they plant crops each spring even after a couple of years of drought. They solve problems. They adapt.
For the last five years, most fruit and vegetable producers have been working with the Maryland Department of Agriculture to utilize Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) standards for food safety. Susan McQuilkin wrote about the GAP standards in January. There has been good progress along those lines and farmers may think that the FDA standards are similar.
I have enough of a farmer in me to want to avoid looking into the new regs in the FDA’s Food Safety Modernization Act, thinking that farmers will adapt to them. As a (sometime) producer and a consumer, I want food to be safe too. Doesn’t everyone?
However, there are some things about the new FDA regulations that really bother me. First of all, the FDA has provided no data to prove that there is a problem with food safety from small to mid-size farm operations which know their customers and sell direct them or sell to them through local stores or food hubs. Their food makes it from farm to table in days, not weeks like apples from China, berries from Chile or tomatoes from Mexico. Bacteria from those sources have much longer to create a health safety risk. However, FDA’s solution to achieving food safety for imported fruits and vegetables is to have them regulate themselves. Importers would be accountable for verifying that their own foreign suppliers are in compliance. Does this make you feel any safer?
For months, Brian Snyder, Executive Director of PASA, has been raising the alarm about impact of the proposed regs on small to mid-sized farms. His most recent post has turned concern to fear. The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition is an alliance of over 100 alliance of grassroots organizations that “advocates for federal policy reform to advance the sustainability of agriculture, food systems, natural resources, and rural communities.” It presented its 10 conclusions about the new FDA regs in a post on October 11th:
1. They’re too expensive. The rules could cost farmers over half of their profits and will keep beginners from starting to farm.
2. They treat farmers unfairly. FDA is claiming broad authority to revoke small farmers’ protections without any proof of a public health threat.
3. They will reduce access to fresh, healthy food. Local food distributors like food hubs could close, and new food businesses will not launch.
4. They make it harder for farms to diversify. Grain, dairy, and livestock farmers could be denied access to emerging local food markets.
5. They will over-regulate local food. The rules could consider farmers markets, roadside stands, and community-supported agriculture programs “manufacturing facilities” subject to additional regulation.
6. They treat pickles like a dangerous substance. The rules fail to protect a host of low-risk processing activities done by smaller farms and processors.
7. They make it nearly impossible to use natural fertilizers like manure and compost. Farmers will be pushed to use chemicals instead of natural fertilizers.
8. They require excessive water testing on farms. Farmers using water from streams and lakes will be required to pay for weekly water tests regardless of risk or cost.
9. They could harm wildlife and degrade our soil and water. The rules could force farmers to halt safe practices that protect our natural resources and wildlife.
10. Bonus: here’s one good component of the rules. The rules take an ‘integrated’, not a ‘commodity-specific’ approach – meaning farmers won’t face over 30 separate rules for each kind of fresh produce they grow.
In short, NSAC is afraid that farmers will not be able to adapt to or solve this problem. Without our small and mid-sized farms, we will lose those who have been fueling the whole local food movement and the resurgence it has brought to local economies.
In preparing this blog, I asked for comments from the Maryland Department of Agriculture. Secretary Hance provided the following statement:
“The U.S. has the safest food supply in the world and Maryland farmers are part of that supply. MDA supports continued improvement in food safety practices on the farm, but the requirements must be science-based and practical for farmers to implement.
MDA plans to comment to FDA on certain areas of concern for Maryland farmers with the Food Safety Modernization Act proposed produce rule. Our primary concerns are 1) lack of research to support certain restrictions and 2) lack of clarity for the process by which FDA can revoke an exemption of a producer with less than $500,000 in sales. Additionally, if FDA amends the rule based on comments received, MDA believes that the revised version should be issued for public comment. The produce rule will have an enormous impact on farmers and they should have every opportunity to comment on these significant changes to the way they farm.
Maryland farmers are ahead of the game. In 2008, MDA developed the MDA Good Agricultural Practices program (using USDA Specialty Crop grant money) to assist farmers with implementing food safety practices on the farm. This program also provides cost-share funding for farmers purchasing equipment to implement good agricultural practices, education in cooperation with the University of Maryland and inspection and certification by MDA. To date, more than 300 farmers have been trained. This is the first year for the certification portion of the program and 20 farmers have been certified.”
Maryland Department of Agriculture has been very proactive on this issue and I appreciate Secretary Hance’s comments.
It is time for farmers to sit down and review the regulations for themselves. If they think that they are fair and effective and will not be the end of their business – great! Let the FDA know that. If the opposite is true, they should let them know that too.
Submit written submissions in the following ways: Mail/Hand delivery/Courier (for paper or CD-ROM submissions): Division of Dockets Management (HFA-305), Food and Drug Administration, 5630 Fishers Lane, Rm. 1061, Rockville, MD 20852. Instructions: All submissions received must include the Agency name and Docket No. FDA-2011-N-0921, and RIN 0910-AG35 for this rulemaking.