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.
Thanks to FDA, the worst fears of farmers across the land are being realized. It seems the greatest burden, and most acute liability for keeping food safe, is going to rest on those who can least afford to bear it, farmers. This despite unanswered questions about how pathogens arrive on any farm in the first place, how the pressures of mass retail marketing force farmers to cut production costs in order to save their farms, or how our society’s quest for absolute sterility throughout the food system may even be paving the way for novel, more potent pathogens to enter in and have their way with us.
Maybe we could forgive them a bit of optimism in thinking that a new set of regulations, albeit based on already-old scientific assumptions, a shiny badge, and the power of the federal government standing behind them can lead us to a promised land of food for all that will never do us any harm, but nature just doesn’t work that way. Apparently only farmers really understand this; such overreaching optimism is really hubris in disguise.
To accuse FDA representatives of unproductive, prideful acts would be an understatement. In my daily work I am often among the first to hear of FDA inspections on farms as I talk to the rattled farmers involved. Inspectors frequently have only minimal training for what they’re doing and, almost unbelievably, sometimes don’t even know what their mission is in visiting farms. And without a clear sense of purpose, they often go about their business by looking at everything, without discretion, as though needing to bring something home to prove their worth.
Such lack of confidence and competence is never hard for a farmer to recognize, but it quickly gets smoothed over with the repeated mantra from the inspector, “I can shut down your operation if I want too.” On that basis, a farmer is supposed to suddenly develop a cheery attitude and positive spirit of cooperation, regardless of what else is happening on the farm that day. Needless to say, under such circumstances, the farmer is not likely to bring up topics that might actually be pertinent to food safety.
With FSMA now looming over the farming landscape, the situation is actually worsening. A recent spate of surprise inspections in multiple states seems driven by FDA district offices wishing to “look busy,” or maybe even by their impatience to wield their newly minted powers. One district official told a meeting of farm leaders I attended a few months ago to expect that “FSMA will break down the traditional protections afforded by state lines,” with a note of cautious enthusiasm in his voice. He went on to suggest that dairy farmers selling raw milk and cheese would likely feel the full brunt of the new law (Pennsylvania is almost certainly the leading state in sales of raw dairy products). I thanked him for his candor, which was refreshing in a year when denial from FDA central command of such likely effects has been the rule.
What’s wrong with this picture? Does anyone really think unfettered enforcement of vague regulations based on outdated science will make our food safer? Why have many of our nation’s most prominent consumer advocacy organizations, that previously touted the trend toward more local and sustainable food systems, suddenly decided that an FDA reign of terror on farms will be in consumers’ best interest? How is it that our friends in the “foodie” community can go on with their daily rituals of sharing food porn through social media without noticing this impending fate about to befall the very farmers whom they celebrate?
FSMA, the legislation itself, was completed in a cooperative atmosphere. It was indeed the last major piece of truly bipartisan legislation to pass through Congress during the Obama Administration. There were nuances and protections built into the law that were intended to result in science-based regulations that would be adjusted according to risk, which often is related to the scale of operations and length of the food supply chain involved, among other factors. The opportunity was, and still is there to develop a regulatory system based on trust and cooperation between the federal government and farmers, without threat of treating farms the same as huge processing plants and hauling their proprietors’ butts into court in chains.
I think it’s high time we take a careful look at how the prevailing culture of FDA, especially under FSMA, will make our food system less safe, rather than the converse. On the whole, farmers wish to produce the most wholesome and safe food possible. There may be a few bad actors, but the vast majority of problems developing on farms are indeed not the result of ill intent or knowing negligence on the part of farmers. Given this reality, is there ever a circumstance under which a surprise inspection by an FDA official will make the situation better? Why shouldn’t the FDA position itself as a support to farmers . . . unless of course the fate of big handlers and retailers further down the food chain is deemed more important?
I challenge the FDA to show a different face to the farmers than the familiar threatening mask of enforcement and authority, and to do so before the FSMA rules are deemed final. Pledge now to use what few resources might be available to provide training for farmers and on-farm food handlers, and to operate on the basis of regularly scheduled visits intended to instill continuous improvement, rather than relying on fear and “black helicopter” tactics to get the job done.
A safer food system must start with a culture of safety and support at the top, supplemented by a healthy dose of humility that we are not at the pinnacle of our knowledge about how natural systems work, but only emerging from our infancy in that regard. When top officials at FDA heed these words, the farmers will heed their FDA partners in the field.
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Please help! The time to #fixFSMA is now, before the November 15, 2013 deadline to file comments with the FDA. For more information, refer to the FSMA Action Center of the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, or elsewhere on the Write to Farm blog.