The Single Biggest Threat to Healthy Food

The Food Safety Modernization Act of 2013 could actually end up destroying the safest food, an expert says.

October 16, 2013

A new food safety law could wipe out farms that grow specialties like these heirloom tomatoes.

There is something so absolutely satisfying about visiting a small farm or farmer's market and purchasing your food directly from the farmer who took the care to grow it. It's a unique opportunity to actually shake the hand that grew your healthy food. It's instant accountability.


Chances are the farmer's family ate a meal from the same crop the farmer's selling at the market or farm stand, a type of quality assurance you just don't get at the supermarket or big-box stores. But the Food Safety Modernization Act of 2013 threatens the viability of these small, holistic farming systems and, if left as is, could result in $12,000 worth of additional costs a year for small farmers. That's a budget line item that would put some farms out of business.

Most Americans don't get their food directly from farmers, though, and a growing number of bagged spinach, peanut, egg, melon, and sprout recalls has forced the government to take action to deal with the problem of harmful—and sometimes even deadly—contamination in the food supply.

The problem? The legal vehicle that resulted from the action, The Food Safety Modernization Act, could actually backfire and threated the smallest, most holistic organic farms, according to some farm analysts.

Here's the quick backstory…

The Food Safety Modernization Act was signed into law in 2011, charging the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to develop new food-safety regulations. The problem is, the agency's draft rules are currently open to comment, and many believe the guidelines place burdensome mandates, testing, and record-keeping requirements on some of the country's smallest but safest farmers—the small-scale operations that often sell directly to consumers.

"We need to take our limited resources and leverage them to look at the greatest risk," explains Mark Kastel, cofounder of the Cornucopia Institute, a nonprofit advocating for family farms. "Instead, they're treating all farmers the same."

For instance, a small community-supported agriculture (CSA) program with just a few dozen farm customers will be held to the same standards as a huge agribusiness corporation selling produce on a mass scale, often shipping fruits and vegetables all over the country.

The Tester-Hager amendment previously added to the food-safety legislature added some important protections for sustainable, small-scale farmers, but the new proposed FDA rules give the federal agency the ability to pull those protections at any time, something some farm analysts say will place a burden on some small farms that they won't be able to overcome. In fact, many experts on small-scale farming say the Food Safety Modernization act could force small organic farms out of business!

Another major flaw, Kastel says: The proposed rules ignore the root cause of many of these foodborne illness outbreaks. They're not addressing where the deadly pathogens are often emerging from—concentrated animal-feeding operations where animal waste contains dangerous bacteria resistant to many drugs. This heightened resistance is occurring because farms are grossly overusing antibiotics in animal feed, according to public health experts.

The contaminated waste can find its way onto fresh produce through wind-blown dust, direct manure application, or irrigation with tainted water.

The FDA rules also fail to address what the Cornucopia Institute coins target risky practices, such as putting fresh-cut product into plastic bags or clamshells, where they have days to build up bacteria while they are shipped far distances before being sold. The rules also assume all produce is equally risky, which isn't what's happening in the real world, Kastel says. Now, growers of bulb onions, a crop that’s had virtually no foodborne illness problems, will be held to the same standard as growers of riskier crops like spinach or sprouts that are sold bagged or in clamshells.

Read More: 10 Scary Facts about Your Beef

Another concern? The draft rules show a bias against biodiversity, which could result in the further "sterilization" of farmland to deter wildlife. Unfortunately, this move also wipes out beneficial insects that help organic farmers grow food without the use of chemical pesticides. Beneficial microbes also help keep soil healthy and balanced, but moves that cut out organic practices and biodiversity threaten sustainable farms. According to the Cornucopia Institute, "the rule denigrates the effectiveness of thorough manure composting while allowing [human] sewage sludge (banned in organics) in fresh vegetable and fruit production. And it will accept imports of produce grown with sewage sludge, from around the world, into the U.S."

To help protect your favorite local farmers, the Cornucopia Institute suggests signing the group's proxy letter.

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