Fight for Your Farmer's Market!

As the Senate considers new food-safety regs, make a call to ensure they don't threaten direct sales between you and the farmer.

November 16, 2009

Regulations aimed at improving food safety could threaten small farms and farmer's markets.

RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—Whether it's salmonella-laced peanut products, E. coli–contaminated beef, or even listeria-stricken Eggo waffles, food recalls and warnings keep turning up. As Congress moves forward with the Food Safety Modernization Act, applying a one-size-fits-all solution to the food-safety problem could put small and midsize sustainable farmers—not the huge food manufacturers that are responsible for most food recalls—out of business.


THE DETAILS: On Wednesday, the Senate HELP (Health, Education, Labor and Pensions) Committee will start actively debating S 510, the Food Safety Modernization Act. The House passed its own—and markedly different—version of this bill over the summer (HR 2749). While local food advocates say there are still issues with the passed House bill, particularly a one-size-fits-all flat fee for all producers, there were some victories. For example, producers that sell directly to consumers through farmer's markets and CSAs would be exempt from electronic traceability requirements that are in the bill. Now organic- and sustainable-farm advocates are finding problems with the Senate version, too. The proposed bills would give the Food and Drug Administration more authority to regulate food safety, inspect food-processing facilities, and order recalls. Farming advocates agree this is a step in the right direction to protect the health of customers, but only if small-scale, organic, and local food systems are protected from unreasonable regulation and expense. A committee vote is expected to take place Wednesday, which will move the bill forward in the legislative process.

WHAT IT MEANS: When you buy your food through local farmer's markets, community-supported agriculture (CSA) share programs, farm stands, or directly from a farm, you're avoiding opportunities for food contamination that come with mass-produced and processed food. Large food manufacturers receive ingredients from dozens of different farms, many of which are industrial operations that rely on the overuse of antibiotics to keep animals alive long enough to slaughter. Knowing your farmer, you can assess the cleanliness of the farm and workers, ask to see water-testing results to ensure harmful bacteria are absent in the irrigation systems, and hold them accountable quickly if there is something wrong with your food.

The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition and the National Organic Coalition have put together five amendments to S 510, in hopes of protecting family farms while allowing enforcers to crack down on bad actors who are tainting the food system:

1. The bill should direct the FDA to narrow the kinds of value-added farm processing activities—selling apple butter made with the farm's apples, for example—that are subject to FDA control, and to base those regulations on sound risk analysis. Current FDA rules assume without any scientific evidence that all farms that undertake any one of a long list of processing activities should be regulated.

2. The bill should direct the FDA to ease compliance for organic farmers by integrating the FDA standards with existing organic-certification rules. FDA compliance should not jeopardize a farmer's ability to be certified under USDA's National Organic Program.

3. The bill must provide small and midsize family farms with training and technical assistance in developing food-safety plans.

4. The bill should insist that FDA food-safety standards and guidance will not contradict federal conservation, environmental, and wildlife standards and practices, and not force the farmer to choose which federal agency to obey and which to reject.

5. Farmers who sell directly to consumers should not be required to keep records and be part of a federal "traceaback" system. Farms should not be required to maintain records electronically, or any records beyond the first point of sale past the farm gate.

The most important thing you can do before November 18 is to contact as many members of the HELP committee as possible and express your concerns that safer, local, and organic food will be threatened unless the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition's and National Organic Coalition's proposed recommendations are adopted. Sen. Bob Casey of Pennsylvania has been named as an especially important player because he holds a position on both the HELP and the Senate Agriculture Committees.

Tom Harkin (IA)—202-224-3254
Chris Dodd (CT)—202-224-2823, 202-224-1083 (fax)
Barbara Mikulski (MD)—202-224-4654, 202-224-8858 (fax)
Jeff Bingaman (NM)—202-224-5521
Patty Murray (WA)—202-224-2621, 202-224-0238 (fax)
Jack Reed (RI)—202-224-4642, 202-224-4680 (fax)
Bernie Sanders (VT)—202-224-5141, 202-228-0776 (fax)
Sherrod Brown (OH)—202-224-2315, 202-228-6321 (fax)
Bob Casey (PA)—202-224-6324, 202-228-0604 (fax)
Kay Hagan (NC)—202-224-6342, 202-228-2563 (fax)
Jeff Merkley (OR)—202-224-3753, 202-228-3997 (fax)
Al Franken (MN)—202-224-5641
Michael Bennett (CO)—202-224-5852, 202-228-5036 (fax)

Mike Enzi (WY)—202-224-3424, 202-228-0359 (fax)
Judd Gregg (NH)—202-224-3324
Lamar Alexander (TN)—202-224-4944, 202-228-3398 (fax)
Richard Burr (NC)—202-224-3154, 202-228-2981 (fax)
Johnny Isakson (GA)—202-224-3643, 202-228-0724 (fax)
Orrin Hatch (UT)—202-224-5251, 202-224-6331 (fax)
Pat Roberts (KS)—202-224-4774, 202-224-3514 (fax)
Tom Coburn (OK)—202-224-5754, 202-224-6008 (fax)
Lisa Murkowski (AK)—202-224-6665, 202-224-5301 (fax)