The Material Conditions of Our Farms

Subtitle: Further Exposing the “Smoking Gun” of the Food Safety Modernization Act

The past week brought news that the comment period for proposed rules implementing the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) has been extended another 120 days beyond the original May 16 deadline.  Oddly, the word on that is not yet official, though was confirmed by FDA Commissioner Hamburg around midweek. Given the odd way the news leaked out, one wonders if there is trouble in food safety paradise these days.

So now we apparently have more time to study the issues and sharpen our messages about what truly constitutes a safe – and secure – food system. This gives me a chance to reflect on an issue I’ve written about before, i.e. the circumstances involving some of the limited exemptions included in the new law.  As I explained in my previous post, The Food Safety Saga and Why It Matters (3/19/13), the so-called Tester-Hagan Amendment (THA) in FSMA allows for qualified exemptions of produce farms, processing plants and mixed-type facilities that gross under $500K per year and sell more than half of their food to qualified end users, which includes consumers, restaurants and retailers within the same state or a 275-mile radius.

The THA contains some aspects of brilliance, particularly in the way it begins to break down state boundaries as the unreliable arbiters of food safety that they are.  But there is also some arbitrariness, e.g. why would a farm that sells $501K each year be considered somehow less safe than another achieving only $499K?  And there’s some real ugliness too, especially when you consider that the various sales calculations reflect all food sold from the farm or facility in question, including conventional grain, milk for processing, animal feed and even livestock.  This  means that even farms grossing well under $500K, with over half of that being conventional commodities, will not qualify for an exemption on the bit of produce and processed food they sell locally on the side.  Don’t look now, but many – very many actually – existing farms will face the full brunt of FDA regulation when they put in their first little patch of zucchini or make their first batch of pickles to sell through local channels . . . you know, that common practice found in rural areas for buying Christmas gifts, a family vacation or even new braces for Johnny? Continue reading

New Food Safety Regulations Miss the Point

Subtitle: Antibiotics and Pesticides and GMOs, Oh My!or, It’s the System, Stupid!

In working on issues related to food safety over the past four years, I have often been struck by how the language of regulators and consumer advocates sounds frighteningly similar to that used by defense and homeland security officials to talk about the threat of terrorism. At first just a source of amusement, I later could not shake the impression that the two seemingly unrelated predicaments were heralded by prophets of doom singing from the same hymnal.  Whether the “enemy” happened to be a terrorist or an unwelcome pathogen in our food, it seemed the only solution would be to “smoke ‘em out” and do them in wherever they lurked.

The link between the two sets of issues is in fact indelible, starting with passage of the so-called Bioterrorism Act of 2002 (BTA) before the dust of the fallen World Trade Center in New York had fully settled.  Among other things, the BTA for the first time required federal registration of all “facilities” that handle, process or distribute food.  That category was supposed to exclude all farms, except that when the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) got to looking, they realized that in fact many farms these days are doing things that look like what they thought only food facilities would do.  For historical perspective, farms have always been rather complex places of business, except perhaps in the minds of federal regulators.

What many people don’t realize today is that the new Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), which was signed into law in January of 2011, was intended primarily as an elaboration and ultimate completion of the BTA.  So for all the noise about foodborne illness outbreaks since 2002, the new FSMA actually has its roots in the desire to thwart terroristic intentions, or at least the theoretical threat that some external evil force would attempt to destroy our nation by poisoning the food supply. Continue reading

The Small-Minded, Small Farm Conundrum

Small is beautiful, said E.F. Schumacher to the world in 1973, but that declaration in itself was no small idea. Many people understood the implications of his work then, as they do now . . . except, it would seem, for those who have the power to make the big changes for which Schumacher advocated. One wonders if his ideas and efforts suffered from a basic, long-term marketing and communications problem.

I wonder that about our situation today in the sustainable agriculture community as well.  Our ideas are not small in any way, but we end up time and time again arguing our case primarily on the basis of size.  It almost seems we have replaced the “get big or get out” mantra of industrial agriculture with “get small or get lost,” resulting in an ineffective, elitist brand of policy formulation that leaves us far from the broad-based respectability and progressive goals we would like to achieve. Continue reading