Strawberries, Raspberries and Bagged Salads

Blogger’s note: This is a guest post coming from two very experienced PASA farmers regarding the potential impact of the rules being proposed by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in implementing the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA). I have learned that it is often best to just step aside and let the farmers we work with do the talking, and this piece helps to prove that point!  Readers should keep in mind that the FSMA rules are open to public comment through November 15 of this year.  To learn more, please look elsewhere on this blog, or check the National Sustainable Ag Coalition website on this matter. BWS 

By Michael Tabor, Needmore, PA and Nick Maravell, Buckeystown, MD

Each week at my farm stands in the Maryland area, we try to explain a peculiar situation to our customers.  On the one hand, they want to buy our fresh fruit and vegetables.  However, I tell then, that in a few years, these will all be illegal to sell! 

Why?

Because they have some degree of dirt and bacteria on them.  The strawberries for instance, have some trace amount of straw and soil on them.  As do the tomatoes, beans, and cucumbers.  We do rinse them before leaving the farm – but we won’t put them through a disinfectant bath nor pack them in antiseptic plastic containers and put “PLU” labels on them.  That’s not what consumers want at a farm market—nor is it something we’ll ever be able to do.

Regulations for a new food law – FSMA – the Food Safety Modernization Act –, administered by the FDA are currently in the process of being finalized.   Although the Act originally had protections for family farmers like myself, we see those being ignored or phased out over time.

Common sense and following the data of recent food safety scares lead us to a very strong conclusion: the further the food travels from the farm to the consumer, the more opportunities it has to become a food safety problem…the current cyclospora food poisoning problem in bagged salads is a good example.

This is one reason why 20 million consumers come to farmers markets like ours and want fresh produce from our fields – preferably grown without pesticides, herbicides or GMO seeds.  And sadly, protecting consumers from these synthetic perils is not addressed by FSMA.

Nor does FDA address what is common sense to many scientists, doctors and parents: our bodies are dependent on the good germs and bacteria. If anything, rather than developing the antiseptic globalized industrial-style food system FSMA seeks, we should be searching for ways to increase the amount of good bacteria in our bodies. In fact, fecal implants to repopulate the gut with bacteria are not science fiction—the medical profession is now performing them every day.

So, why is this bad science becoming the law of the land?  First, it is partially due to corporate profit.  Corporations depend on a global supply chain, and in doing so they are finding it increasingly difficult to deliver safe food.  At the same time they are losing market share to the local food systems that customers are demanding—witness the sharp increase in farmers markets, community supported agriculture (CSAs), and restaurants offering “farm to fork” menus.  To avoid legal liability, the corporations want to legitimize an industrial approach to sterilizing everything, without regard to the unnecessary and costly burden placed on local farmers.  If your local farmer goes out of business trying to comply with the costs of hundreds of pages of new federal food safety regulations, well that just leaves more customers without a local alternative.

Second there is the misguided advocacy of the consumer organizations, like Center for Science in the Public Interest,(CSPI). They mean well, but they think that throwing regulatory words and paperwork burden at a problem will solve it.  This approach is overly legalistic, and it ignores the realities of nature and the practical fact that over-regulating a sector that is not causing a problem—small farmers—cannot possibly lead to safer food.

And, finally, there is this Administration’s commitment to the bio-tech industry.  It’s no accident that FDA’s deputy commissioner responsible for food safety, Michael R. Taylor, is a former Monsanto Vice President.  That partially explains why the “safe food” mandate does nothing to protect us from genetically engineered food, and the harsh chemicals that are necessarily paired with it.

It will, however, put many of us farmers, who are committed to fresh, healthy and sustainably-grown food, out of business. We note a recent issue of Lancaster Farming (7/13/13), on page A10, that Don Bessemer, a third generation farmer, whose family farmed his land for 117 years in Akron, Ohio, has already closed his Bessemer Farm Market and specifically named FDA and FSMA as the reason.  He had to lay off his 30 employees. He estimated that with the “many layers of government red tape and paperwork” the requirements would cost him at least $100,000 to comply with the regulations and $30,000 a year for inspections.  He said in 117 years, they have never poisoned anyone and, “I can fight the bugs, I can fight the lack of rain, but when the guy comes with a clipboard what are you going to do?”

We can all see the future. It is those antiseptic, theoretically bacteria-free plastic containers that will soon become the only way we will be able to shop for all of our produce.

And that should be an issue of public outrage!

Michael Tabor has been farming for 41 years and supplies Baltimore-area universities and colleges with GMO-free, sustainably grown produce. He is being honored this September for running his farm stand in the Adams Morgan neighborhood in Washington, DC, for 40 years. 

Nick Maravell serves as a farmer representative on the USDA’s National Organic Standards Board and has farmed organically since 1979, raising grain, livestock and vegetables.

27 thoughts on “Strawberries, Raspberries and Bagged Salads

  1. Pingback: Like your local food? | Walnut Run Farm Blog

  2. 40% of american farms are actually going to be exempt from the produce rule. So, if you don’t do any further processing of your strawberries and raspberries and 1) sell the majority of your food directly to the person who is actually going to be eating it (or a restaurant) you are exempt 2) gross less than $500K, sell in state or within 275 miles of your farm you are exempt. And if you ARE doing any of those things, you fall within the higher risk categories that are going to be regulated. Outbreaks over the past 20 years have shown that higher risk suppliers need the regulation. Higher risk supplier should have written food safety plans anyway, most likely they will already be in compliance because the rules are so broad. The rule isn’t going into effect for a minimum of 2 years plus there is have phase in after that giving years to comply. Written food safety plans are the future of food. Any farmer wishing to grow is going to have to start doing it to satisfy the demands of the market, FSMA or no.

    • Actually, on closer inspection one finds enough loopholes and vague definitions in the statute and proposed rules to make it possible for nearly all farms to be included. The so-called exemptions are not as easy as you make them sound. For instance, even a relatively small dairy farm (let’s say grossing under $100K) that decides to diversify by selling vegetables at the local market will not qualify for any exemption because the total of “all food” sold is above the $25K exemption for produce, and with more than half going out on a milk truck, the Tester language (i.e. the $500K exemption) does not kick in either. Besides, the “material conditions” clause in the language for withdrawing exemptions makes it possible for FDA to regulate any farm it wishes to. Farmers are not against following established procedures for keeping the food safe, but they have too much experience with regulations that favor industrial-scale operations to be fooled by the “exemption” language contained in these rules. Implementation of the rules as they are will, in the long run, likely make the food system less safe, not the converse.

  3. Pingback: Strawberries, Raspberries and Bagged Salads | ecosystemengineers

  4. Pingback: Understanding the Food Safety Modernization Act | Pennsylvania Farmers Union

  5. If there comes a day that I have to meet with a farmer under the cover of night, in a hidden cellar, I WILL continue to eat fresh farm food. That is our right as human beings. Thank you for your article and raising awareness on this incredibly important issue.

    • Hi Tabatha. Agreed. And you should expect your farmer isn’t causing you harm because not doing so is extra work and extra cost. If he had a basket of strawberries labeled ‘may contain feces and bacteria’ and one labeled ‘free of feces and harmful bacteria’ which one would you buy – and how much more would you pay?

    • Though automobiles and guns kill more than 30,000 per year, EACH. So let’s maintain a sense of perspective here, and imagine also how many more people will die if fruits and vegetables are less available on a local/regional basis because of ill-considered rules applied without regard to the length and complexity of the supply chain.

      • Hi Brian-

        Well, regarding perspective, we fought two unnecessary wars, lost 5,000 lives, and spent $1.5 trillion because 3,200 people died just once on 911. I don’t think food safety is binary. A food safety plan is not a crushing financial event. If you want an analogy, it’s like suggesting food service shouldn’t be expected refrigerate food, wash produce, and ask their employees to wash their hands and wear gloves. No one would accept that argument. If a farmer can’t provide the basic quality controls, perhaps they shouldn’t be farming. If there are additional costs, pass them on! Most farmers I know do just this at my local farmers’ market – and never once does the customer object.

        • Marc,

          Your contrarian logic makes for good conversation, but misses the point that achieving zero risk in the food system (or life) is not possible. At some point, efforts to reduce risk through further regulation end up increasing risk instead. The only way to minimize (though not eliminate) risk is to rely on direct relationships and good information within the system by which consumers must then choose the sources of their food. I’m guessing you don’t know the farmers who wrote this piece, or these points would be self-evident to you.

          Thanks for adding your perspective to this discussion.

          Brian

          • Hi Brian. I really did not mean to get into an argument – and I am certainly not suggesting you can eliminate risk (or should even try). I am suggesting that if your core value proposition is the quality of the food and it is the most compelling competitive advantage, why wouldn’t you do everything possible to amplify that advantage. If you examine the leaders in any premium business sector, they don’t complain about the regulatory framework that improves the quality of their product. In fact, I think organic farms should police each other in this regard – directly or indirectly. By the way, it’s condescending (and ridiculous) to suggest knowing the farmer’s personally makes it acceptable. Most of the farmers I know won’t accept lower standards by their peers (friends).

          • Thanks Marc. I think we’re saying pretty much the same thing. In fact, I agree that a peer review process could work very well, and would be preferable to a regulatory system where inspectors may have little experience in running a farm — if any. We’ve had several “visits” from FDA personnel on Pennsylvania farms in the past year, and believe me, they often don’t go very well, even when no food safety problems have been identified. What may work for industry just isn’t going to work on individual farms, which is really the whole point here. I appreciate the conversation we’ve had to clarify these points. B.

          • Hi Brian-

            Thanks for your thoughtful comments. Our farming and food systems are going through wonderful transformation from global back to local, which I believe will result in much higher quality food. Time from harvest to table is the most important measure for a perishable.

            Best,

            Marc.

      • Hi Eco!

        I don’t have the data, but I am confident that most were NOT from local, naturally grown, and meticulously cared for crops. And I would guess that with a food safety plan in place, it would drop to almost nothing. That’s kind of my point. Each time an outbreak is tracked back to an import or a conventional farm that is careless, it is GREAT for the reputation of local food. A food service plan isn’t as daunting as it would seem. It really is about best practices, which for the farms we’re talking about, probably doesn’t increase the work effort much at all. Technology makes traceback and other record keeping cheap. Food safety is something we should be celebrating as one of the defining characteristics of our local food.

  6. this article should be taught in high school, so that those nascent adults will have a reason to insist on the availability of real food, locally raised, with good microbes attached.

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