11/16/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Myth About Food Safety Legislation and Small Farmers

Supporters of local and organic food should be substantially reassured that the new food safety legislation working its way through Congress does not place an inordinate burden on small and organic growers.

The Packer, a trade publication for the produce industry, reported Sept 14 that FDA Commissioner Peggy Hamburg pledged that the FDA will be sensitive to the concerns of smaller growers and organic producers as it sets any new regulations. "Everyone has a duty to make their food safe, but there is more than one pathway for that," she said. She promised that the FDA's food safety rules will be based on an adaptable set of preventive controls.

"It will not be one size fits all. They will be scaled for risk, and they will reflect the needs and concerns of the community," she said in an address to the United Fresh Produce Association's Washington Public Policy Conference.

Ever since Congress began considering new legislation to provide the FDA more authority, responsibility and resources to protect Americans from unsafe food, smaller farmers have been concerned that provisions of the legislation, intended to address problems raised by large produce growers and processors, would be piled on them and become an unnecessary burden.

Chrys Ostrander from Chrysalis Farm@Tolstoy argued that "fruits and vegetables are definitely NOT 'at the heart of a weakness in the inspection system.'" He suggested that reforms proposed by the Make Our Food Safe Coalition could lead to the destruction of small farms and small-scale food processors.

While Chrys cites only "my impression" that fresh produce is not responsible for large numbers of foodborne illnesses, research shows both imported and domestic fresh produce have been responsible for large numbers of foodborne illnesses and outbreaks. Compiling data from the CDC and state and local health departments, the Center for Science in the Public Interest found that, between 1990 and 2006, produce was second only to seafood in causing foodborne illness outbreaks and was responsible for 21 percent of the illnesses in their database. Produce was responsible for more outbreaks than meat, poultry, eggs, dairy and bread products.

Foodborne illness outbreaks hurt producers as well as consumers. Farmers far removed from a contamination incident or outbreak can be driven out of business when consumers decide not to buy a particular produce even though it was produced far away from the problem area. Nationally, the demand for spinach and lettuce dropped radically after California spinach was implicated in an outbreak of E. coli O157:H7 poisoning. The industry has not yet fully recovered.

Florida tomato farmers were devastated by the connection of their product to the Salmonella Saint Paul outbreak that came at the height of their growing season. USDA recently announced that farmers will likely cut their production of peanuts by about 27 percent this year as a result of smaller contracts from buyers. Folks just aren't going to buy food that might make them or their family sick.

We know that under current law the FDA can't fix these problems. The agency has no specific mandate to prevent illness or require recall of adulterated food and inspects food processors only about once every 10 years. They rarely look at imported food.

While both farmers and consumers benefit from safer food, no one benefits from a law that puts ridiculous burdens on small farmers. The bill that passed the House does NOT impose fees on farms. They are specifically exempted from the registration fee. Many of the provisions that initially sparked fear among small and organic producers were changed or dropped before the bill passed the House last July.

Some farmers who also engage in small scale food processing are concerned that they'll have to pay a registration fee. We think it is likely that the Senate will not support a flat fee for all companies regardless of size but will adopt some sort of sliding fee based on size of the operation or exempt the smallest farms altogether. Members of the Make Our Food Safe Coalition hope we can work with small farmers and organic groups to help assure sufficient funding for the agency to do its work adopts a sliding registration fee based on the size of a processing activity.

Dr. Hamburg has pledged that FDA regulations will be sensitive to scale. That should open the door for small farmers to join victims and consumer advocates in urging Congress to pass a bill that recognizes the special needs of small farmers but still has the power to assure that all companies operate in a manner that reduces the risk of foodborne illness to the lowest level. If consumers and small farmers can agree on the need for Congress to give FDA the power and resources and responsibility for preventing foodborne illness, including developing scale-appropriate regulations, we could be strong allies in assuring that that gets into the final legislation and agency rules.

We all eat to preserve life and health. No one wins when people eat and get sick, not the farmer or the consumer. No one benefits if all our food comes from giant farms far away. Farmers and consumers and foodborne illness victims should be working together to protect everyone's health and to assure organic farmers and artisanal processors don't get hammered by big guy regulations. We could work together and do better for all of us. It will drive our mutual enemies crazy.

The opinions here are the author's alone and do not represent the official policy for the entire Make Our Food Safe Coalition.