Food Safety for the Little Guys

If you follow along with updates from COMFOOD or any similar food policy listservs, you’ve probably been understandably shocked to find an email in your inbox screaming: “OUTLAW ORGANIC FARMING!”  The panicky claims have been so widespread as to earn them an entry on the Snopes rumor database. HR 875 – the bill in question – is a tricky piece of legislation that proposes a few restrictive policies, while also instituting some good regulations (according to Food & Water Watch, 875 would split the FDA into a group that focuses on drug safety and one that deals specifically with food safety, which is long overdue).

Elanor Starmer of Ethicurean offers a clear explanation of the realities of the various legislation up for consideration. In her opinion, part of the issue is that small-scale, alternative ag has flown under the radar for so long that it has become paranoid at the thought of any regulation. That said, her fear is that without the guidance of the sustainable food movement, we will end up with a set of rules that are as detrimental to small farmers as the existing USDA meatpacking regulations have been to small meat producers. (Mother Jones just ran a profile of a mobile abbatoir outside of San Francisco, which highlights the obstacles facing small slaughterhouses.) Starmer writes:

… by and large, the laws governing food production — especially food processing — in this country have been built for the big guys and imposed on the little guys to their detriment. And so the last thing we need now is to follow our one-size-fits-all approach to, say, slaughterhouses, with a one-size-fits-all approach to food safety on the farm.

That said, if we want “niche” farm products like organic to become more mainstream, if we want more farm-to-institution programs, if we want farmers markets in every town and city — well, pretty soon we’re going to have to figure out how to create food safety regulations that work for small farms and processors. We can’t keep hoping that small operations will be able to avoid food safety regulation because they’re small, that they’ll operate outside of the rules that govern most of the food Americans eat. So the crux of the matter, as I see it, is this:

How can we be proactive on food safety? How can we stop saying simply “no” and start saying “OK, provided that the rules work for us, and here are some that do”?

When rules are designed with only the largest operations in mind, then the smallest farms inevitably bear the greatest burden.

Over on the newly re-vamped Grist.org food site, Tom Philpott wraps up some of the many takes on HR 875, along with the more insidious HR’s 1332 and 759. The consensus in the sustainable food community is that 875 won’t likely leave the committee, but some combination of 1332 and 759 will. Together, those two proposals could do much greater harm by levying one-size fees on small and large processors alike, and by pushing inspection duties off to third-party auditors. Philpott also points out that while activists were in a tizzy over HR 875, Congress passed the Global Food Security Act of 2009, granting companies like Monsanto an open pass for biotech development in the third world. A tidy bit of misdirection, eh?

Now federal regulation can only impact inter-state commerce, meaning that directly local sales would be unaffected, but, as eaters, this policy debate should still grab our attention. Consider the difficulty for a place like Portland, where we enjoy farm-fresh cheeses and produce from just over the Columbia river in Washington state. More broadly still, the issue of farmer regulation is particularly relevant to us here in Oregon, given the recent announcement by our Department of Agriculture that statewide farmer’s markets will see increased surveillance this summer.

In a March article in the Bend Bulletin, ODA Food Safety Manager Ellen Laymon explained that, in comparison with other states, Oregon markets are almost unregulated (while also never having been connected with a single food-borne illness!).  Accordingly, the ODA will be observing markets and looking into ways to impose stricter rules and enforce fines for infractions, along the lines of certain other states, some of which don’t allow cheese or meat sales or samples. Many farmers that we know are keeping a wary eye on the ODA surveillance, and are understandably worried that new licensing and fees could make the cost of farming even higher.

The Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association offers one positive model for how Oregon could move forward with proactive and appropriately-scaled regulations, rather than just railing reactively at poorly structured policy. As the ODA begins their summer survey, it will be important for all of us to make it clear to the state that we enjoy our markets and only want to see regulations that develop from a consensus within the farmer community. We’ll be staying apprised of the local situation and will keep you updated as we hear more from the local markets about the next steps.

Thanks for sharing