Speak to FDA about food safety rules

November 11, 2013 | |

* A version of this column originally appeared in the Nov. 9, 2013, edition of the Traverse City Record-Eagle

Nov. 15 is the deadline for the public to comment on rules developed by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to implement the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA). It’s imperative that those who want to buy or sell locally grown produce weigh in. 

Everyone wants and deserves safe, healthy food. The devil, though, is in the details. 

The FDA’s proposed rules reveal a lack of understanding about the small and mid-scale farms investing in a very modern trend in agriculture—that families, grocery stores and schools here and around the country want to buy food from farmers they know for reasons of flavor, health, the environment or strengthening local economies. 

Organizations that advocate for small farmers and local food are speaking up. The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, one of the most active organizations supporting the growing local food market trend, said many organic farmers will find it nearly impossible to continue with some key practices necessary to be certified organic by the USDA. The National Farm to School Network sees the rules as threats to a growing number of “food hubs,” where small local farms can bring their products together to meet school needs for volumes or minimal processing (we have a food hub developing here in Traverse City). And health advocates argue that smaller and mid-scale farms serving local markets are often growing produce varieties packed with nutrients that simply aren’t available in varieties grown for shipping long distances. They also are providing important access to healthy food for families in poverty. These organizations add the following:

Congress, when it passed the act in 2010, said that small farms and those that sell mostly direct to consumers should be considered differently than large industrial farms and food processing plants. It’s not that small farms shouldn’t take care to make sure that their foods don’t contain pathogens that can make us sick. It’s that the rules don’t need to be as complex, expensive and burdensome when products are sold in a smaller geographic area, where problems can be easily tracked and food goes through fewer hands.

Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farms, which sell directly to customers who pay up front for weekly boxes of food, could easily get entangled in onerous regulations. There are at least 35 CSA farms in our region. If one provides its customers with the opportunity to “one-stop shop” by being a drop-off spot for products grown by other farms—a vegetable CSA, for example, offering quarts of strawberries from another farm—the FDA may consider it not just a farm but also an aggregation “facility” like a large processing plant and therefore subject to even more rules. A one-size-fits-all approach does not make sense, and wasn’t intended by Congress when it wrote the FSMA law.

Some farmers using surface water like ponds or lakes for irrigation also will be required to pay for weekly water tests, regardless of risk or cost. Farm groups say this rule isn’t based in science, and that the cost will put farmers out of business and cause a new generation of beginning farmers to give up. In fact, the FDA’s own economic analysis projects that smaller farms likely will pay more than half of their already slim profits just to meet this and other new rules.  

There are positive aspects to the rules that deserve support. For example, the FDA would adopt a whole-farm approach instead of creating commodity-specific regulations, except for sprouts. That’s a relief for farmers who grow a variety of fruits and vegetables. Imagine having to follow different regulations for 20 different crops on your farm. But the FDA is seen as “tentative” on that rule, so it’s important that the agency hears from people who think it makes sense.

You can learn more about the proposed rules, and how to comment, at sustainableagriculture.net. The site has simple templates and instructions to submit comments electronically to the FDA. 

Let FDA know that you want our food to be safe, but the agency needs to make sure this happens in a way that doesn’t hinder family farmers investing in ways to grow for modern, new markets close to home. The Food Safety Modernization Act should really be modern.

Diane Conners is a senior policy specialist at the Michigan Land Use Institute and a member of the Northwest Michigan Food & Farming Network, which has a goal that 20 percent of the region’s food be grown by local farmers by 2020.

About the Author

Diane Conners is a senior policy specialist in food and farming at the nonprofit Michigan Land Use Institute.

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