‘Safety’ rules dangerous for farms, local food and America’s health

Nov. 15, 2013 @ 10:45 AM

People who want an increase in the Triangle’s access to healthy, locally grown fresh produce and locally made foods should be gravely concerned about actions by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).  The Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), passed by Congress in 2010, gives FDA new authority to set rules for how farmers grow produce, and for how food businesses run their day-to-day operations.  Earlier this year FDA proposed rules to implement FSMA, and revealed just how it plans to use its new powers.

The indications are threatening for American farmers, businesses and consumers.

Recognizing that one-size-does-not-fit-all in regulating agriculture, Congress included protections in FSMA to ensure that local food producers and organic farming are not strangled by industrial-scale food-safety rules.  By limiting FDA’s power to govern farms and food makers serving local markets, Congress intended the local food sector should continue to thrive and offer consumers fresh fruits and vegetables.  Unfortunately, FDA’s proposed rules ignore those protections, and threaten to drive most of the country’s fruit and vegetable production to foreign shores, where food contamination risk is likely greater.

FDA’s proposed rules weigh in at over 1,500 pages, and are riddled with flawed assumptions, false conclusions, logical inconsistencies, circular definitions and incomplete data.  They impose costly unscientific mandates on farms and low-risk food businesses; would make it impossible for most farms to use organic methods; and would discourage farms from conserving soil and water.

FDA’s own estimates show that the typical produce farm with less than $250,000 in sales will spend 6 percent of sales to comply with these proposed regulations.  The average net income for farmers nationally was 10 percent of sales in 2011. So for typical small farms, FSMA will consume more than half their already meager earnings.  FDA’s calculations also show that 73 percent of the total costs of the new rules for food processing facilities will be borne by businesses with 20 or fewer employees such as the Piedmont Food and Ag Processing Center in Hillsborough, even though these businesses produce just 4 percent of the food consumed in the US. 

FDA admits the rules will reduce the number of new farms in the United State and discourage new food businesses from opening.  Unfortunately, the rules are unlikely to result in comparable reductions in foodborne illness.  A U.S. Department of Agriculture analysis concluded there was no evidence that FSMA-like food safety procedures actually prevent disease.  It is no wonder that all the state departments of agriculture, including North Carolina’s, have unanimously called for FDA to dump these proposed rules and go back to the drawing board.

No farmer or food maker wants to harm her customers, and local food farms and businesses are already operating under a patchwork of local, state and federal rules and regulations.  Moreover, science demonstrates that much of the food produced from American farms, family businesses and cooperatives is a low risk for causing food-borne illness.  It makes no sense to apply rules designed for complex, national and international food supply chains to the inherently short supply chains that characterize local food.  Local supply chains by their nature limit the possible extent of food-borne illness outbreaks, and government safety schemes must take that into account if they are to be efficient and effective.

Fresh, healthy, local, organic food, grown in our communities and artisanal food made by our neighbors, has disproportionate positive impacts on public health.  We know better diets lead to less heart disease, less obesity, less chronic illness and happier, healthier lives.  We know money recirculated within our communities makes our economies more resilient, and that healthy economies support healthy people.  We know our diet in this country is killing us: 50,000 Americans die every year from colon cancer, more than 200,000 die from complications of diabetes and 800,000 die from heart disease.  Local food can be a huge contributor in overcoming these epidemics. 

Local food lovers must demand changes in the rules before they become final.  FDA must allow farmers to use sustainable farming practices; must ensure that diversified and local farms and food makers continue to grow and thrive; and must treat family farms fairly, with due process and without excessive costs.

Local farms and food makers are committed to keeping their communities healthy and enriched; they are not interested in building a food system that merely avoids killing us unexpectedly, but are aiming for food that helps us all live better.  Government can achieve better public health results by supporting the local food renaissance that is changing American food and farming for the better, rather than by threats, unscientific rules and paperwork.

Roland McReynolds is an attorney and the executive director of the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association (CFSA), a member-based non-profit based in Pittsboro that helps people in the Carolinas grow and eat local organic food.  He directs the organization’s food safety policy, and is a member of the North Carolina Fresh Produce Safety Task Force.