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Potential Impacts of Food Safety Legislation on Organic and Small Farms

(Beyond Pesticides, March 26, 2009) Following safety concerns and recalls of peanut butter products and spinach, new food safety legislation has been introduced by the U.S. Congress. They have stirred fears that the future of food safety regulations will be designed for Big Agriculture, and will harm organic and small farmers, and even home gardeners. H.R. 875, the Food Safety Modernization Act of 2009, and H.R. 759, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Globalization Act of 2009, are responsible for many of those fears.

Due to growing concerns and rumors regarding these, and other, bills, Food & Water Watch (FWW) has summarized some of the chief points of each bill.

FWW explains that H.R. 875 would turn FDA into two agencies: one that regulates food, and another for drugs and medical devices. It increases processing plant inspections, as the latest peanut butter recalls were traced to one terribly mismanaged plant. It requires farms to write a “food safety plan,” and extends FDA authority to include farms. It also requires imported food to meet the same safety standards as domestic products.

It does not, however, establish mandatory animal identification, like the National Animal Identification System (NAIS), nor does it regulate backyard gardens, seed, or require electronic food tracing. Perhaps most importantly for small farmers, it does not increase regulations on farmers markets and does not apply at all to food that does not cross state lines.

According to FWW and others, H.R. 759 is more likely to pass through Congress than H.R. 875. Potentially problematic components of this bill include: requiring electronic recordkeeping by farms and restaurants, in addition to food processors; requires food processors to pay a registration fee to fund FDA’s increased inspections; and directs FDA to develop production standards and “good agricultural practices” for produce.

The Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association (MOFGA) has developed a position statement on food safety that elucidates some of the concerns these bills raise. “MOFGA’s concerns have really been around making sure we don’t require extra systems at the same time as farmers around the country are having a hard time maintaining viable businesses,” said Russell Libby, the group’s executive director. MOFGA’s four-pointed working principles to guide food safety are:

1) Focus on the big problems. Current food safety discussions “tend to ignore anything but biological food safety issues; FDA’s food monitoring data continue to show pesticide residues from DDT and organophosphates at low levels, but it is generally ignored as an enforcement priority.” 2) Fairness and flexibility. “Enacting laws or regulations that work for large farms but can’t be met by small farmers is fundamentally wrong.” 3) “Mandating only one solution (e.g. USDA’s Good Agricultural Practices) limits possibilities for small farmers. 4) Enforce existing food safety laws first before considering reorganization.

The Organic Consumers Association (OCA) has also come out against H.R. 875. It states, “OCA does not support H.R. 875 in its present form, given the fact that, if the bill’s regulations were applied in a one-size-fits-all manner to certified organic and farm-to-consumer operations, it could have a devastating impact on small farmers, especially raw milk producers.”

Rep. Sam Farr (D-CA), who has supported organic agriculture for decades, supports new food safety legislation, and tried to allay such fears. Small farmers need not worry, he said, “because I think the smallest are not a target. It’s not farmers’ markets; I’s not organic growers shipping to local areas. It’s big commercialization, essentially the supermarket-type foods that are processed in big quantities and distributed all over the United States.” H.R. 875 was introduced by Rep. Rosa DeLauro, who has a long history of supporting progressive legislation.

For more information on the National Organic Program’s existing regulatory requirements for food safety, view a summary by Beyond Pesticides board member Jim Riddle, of the University of Minnesota.

TAKE ACTION: H.R. 875 and H.R. 759 are still under discussion and may be amended. Track them at www.thomas.loc.gov. Clearly, questions about their effect on small and organic farmers remain. Contact your representative today to demand clarity and explanation of how they might unintentionally negatively impact sustainable agriculture.

Sources: Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, Food & Water Watch, Kennebec Journal, New York Times


One Response to “Potential Impacts of Food Safety Legislation on Organic and Small Farms”

  1. 1
    Amy Coulter Says:

    Thanks for such a coherent and on target commentary about the hyperbole surrounding food production and safety. I will be passing this page along to my permaculture groups in the east bay, and will call my reps to express my concern that the government is subsidizing big, profit-driven agribusiness at the expense of creating the only sustainable food system for large urban populations–localizing production and investing in community gardens through green jobs and access to land and materials!! As you already know, we don’t need NO stinking pesticides.

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