What’s In a Farm?

Back when the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) first started to move through Congress in 2009, none of us really anticipated that we’d be fighting over four years later to preserve the very idea of a “farm” as defined in the new law.  Well, almost none of us expected this, except perhaps my very dear friend Russell Libby, then executive director of the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association (MOFGA).  In an email directly to leaders at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) with whom we were negotiating, Russell decried what he called the “broad and inclusive definition of ‘facility,’ and relatively narrow sense of what constitutes a ‘farm,’” contained in the language of the Bioterrorism Act of 2002 (BTA), upon which FSMA would rely for such definitions.

Russell is now gone, a victim of the cancer that took his life a year ago this December.  There will always be a hole left in the lives of those who knew him, and also now this lingering feeling that he could see ahead, to the potential disappearance of farms as we know them, both literally and in the figurative sense as part of the laws of our country.  And as the newly-extended comment period closes this week (Friday, November 22) for comments to FDA on FSMA, there is almost certainly no higher priority to any of us than that the definition of a farm ends up in the regulations as richly diverse and comprehensive as we have always known it to be.  Please take one more look, and help us get this right. Continue reading

A Message to Public Officials on Food Safety

{Blogger’s note: I know I said there would be no more posts before the end of the FSMA comment period on November 15, but I came across this statement approved by PASA’s board of directors at the very beginning of this process nearly five years ago, and thought it was worth sharing again at this time. Our views have matured considerably since that time, but the basic points are the same. Please keep in mind that help is available for commenting on the proposed rules at the PASA website, including templates to follow and links directly to FDA}

Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture (PASA) — May 22, 2009

It seems everyone in elected office these days wants to do something about food safety.  Who can blame them, given that the headlines on any particular day might carry news of the latest food poisoning scare?  It is a supreme paradox that, while all of us must eat in order to survive, food can also become an instrument of death.  As a community of farmers, we must also come to terms with the fact that harmful pathogens occasionally present in food can originate on farms in various ways that at times defy easy explanation. Continue reading

FDA’s Culture of Fear Threatens Food Safety

You really have to hand it to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).  They have accomplished a feat in the last 10 months that Secretary Tom Vilsack and his United States Department of Agriculture have not been able to do after five long years of trying . . . uniting America’s farmers of all stripes to stand up for each other and speak with one voice.

Beginning in January of this year, when the FDA issued its first proposed rules under the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), which passed Congress in 2010, produce farmers in particular, both big and small, have been reacting with skepticism that the federal government really understands the nuts and bolts of food production well enough to tell them how to do it in a way that minimizes risk to consumers.

Maybe it’s because these farmers know the actual science involved – that diets rich in fruits and vegetables can save far more lives than the risk of pathogens would ever cost our society. I suspect, however, it’s a far more concrete image that has galvanized the farming community – that of two young farmers led into a Colorado courtroom in shackles, despite their lack of knowledge or intent to hurt anyone with the Listeria-laden cantaloupe they sold through Wal-Mart and other big retailers to consumers across the country. Continue reading

FSMA Rules Unfair to Farmers, Bad for Public Health

{Blogger’s note: The following list of talking points with respect to the newly proposed FSMA rules was developed by my colleague Roland McReynolds at the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association, and is meant to be helpful to anyone who will be talking about the rules or making official comments to the FDA by the November 15 deadline. For more information, please see other posts on this blog, or go to the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition website.}

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has proposed regulations for farms and food businesses under the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA).  Everything from salad and salsas to cheese and u-pick fruit will be affected, and the costs will force thousands of American farmers and local food makers out of business, destroying job growth in agriculture.  The rules are unscientific, and will damage public health by reducing consumers’ access to fresh, healthy produce and minimally processed foods, and by discouraging soil and water conservation practices on farms. Continue reading

Moment of Truth for Farmers with Food Safety

It’s hard to believe, but many of my colleagues and I have now been working on food safety issues for well over four years, at least since the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) began to move through Congress in early 2009.  Throughout that time the road has been twisting and bumpy, with victories and losses along the way, but now the moment of truth has arrived.  In just a few weeks, on November 15, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) will close the comment period on proposed new rules that would greatly affect many of the farmers who are doing the right thing.  It’s anyone’s guess right now what will finally come out as a result.

When I talk about the “right thing” I really mean that many farmers at PASA and elsewhere have been working to develop balanced systems of production that prioritize health-building practices from the soil up, and short food supply chains that promote transparency by selling to local and regional markets as much as possible. Such strategies are the embodiment of both common sense and current science, since they maximize the health of the whole system while also minimizing risk through reduction of handling, storage, transportation and other factors associated with longer supply chains.  The urgent challenge now before us is that the FDA is preparing to implement food safety rules for tomorrow’s farms based on yesterday’s science. Continue reading

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. Continue reading

Our Lives in the Balance

Well folks, we received word last week of yet another extension of the deadline to comment on the proposed rules related to the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA).  The new deadline will be November 13 of this year.  We are told that this is a “final” deadline, and we have every reason to believe that description, since the courts are now involved in limiting FDA’s ability to extend the process any further. We can at least be happy that the month of August will not be spent trying to motivate farmers and the general public to respond in great numbers to the proposed rules – the fall season will work much better for that, and we’ll still be done by Thanksgiving!

But there is tremendous worry out there in the sustainable agriculture community that the rules as they stand are woefully inadequate to improve the safety of our food supply in any meaningful way, while also avoiding the near certainty that the implementation process will lead to further concentration in both the agricultural and processing sectors of the food industry.  I am no government hater, but it does seem that, when it comes to agriculture, the good intentions of using regulation to rein in the excesses of corporate power often end up helping to consolidate and strengthen that power instead. Continue reading