THE BLOG
01/06/2011 02:23 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Over-Regulating Small Farms Doesn't Make Food Safer

With food-borne illnesses affecting 76 million people per year, causing almost 5,000 deaths and costing approximately $9 billion in health care costs per year, you can bet that, as the CEO of a food service company with 400 cafés in 31 states, I worry about the safety of our food supply.

That's why I supported the Landmark Food Safety Modernization Act (S 510) that was signed by President Obama on January 4. At the same time, despite the fact that 20% of the foods we buy company-wide are purchased from small local and regional farms, ranches, and producers, I fully supported the Tester Amendment that exempts these same small producers from some of the bill's provisions. Why? Because our nation's small farms are not the problem. In fact, they are the solution to rebuilding a healthier food system for all.

Having just reached a milestone goal of partnering with 1,000 small farmers, ranchers, cheesemakers, fishermen, grain millers, and artisan food producers through our Farm to Fork program, we at Bon Appétit Management Company watched the progress of this bill closely. This is an issue close to our hearts because these producers are a huge part of how and why we do business.

When we began our Farm to Fork local purchasing program back in 1999, it was originally to address the loss of flavor we'd noticed in produce grown on a large-scale and shipped cross country. We wanted to bring the taste of local, seasonal produce back to our diner's plates. But it's become much more than that. It's about rebuilding a regional food system capable of providing healthy food to everyone, while enabling farmers to make a living. It's about shortening the supply chain and fostering personal connections between producers, chefs, and diners. It's about supporting the work of small family farmers and preserving the integrity they bring to the food they produce.

Our chefs know exactly where the food they are buying comes from, and often, they know the producer personally. These personal connections foster trust and integrity, of course, but it's not only about trust; it's also about the mechanics of traceability. The more distance between producers and consumers, the more difficult it is to trace a problem to its source.

Consider one of the largest outbreaks of salmonella in history. A spring 2008 outbreak that sickened people in 43 states was first linked to tomatoes from Mexico, and then maybe Florida. Later it was thought that the outbreak originated with fresh jalapenos from Mexico (or maybe elsewhere). Cilantro was even implicated for a brief moment. Months later, after the outbreak abated, the FDA still didn't know exactly where or how the outbreak started.

Today, in response to a spate of such outbreaks linked to everything from bagged spinach to cookie dough, and after more than two years in the works, the bill, with the Tester Amendment intact, looks to be a done deal. But controversy about the bill and amendment continues. It would be hard for anyone to argue that we don't need a safer food supply (indeed the bill has enjoyed broad bi-partisan support even in these divisive times), but the issue has been over the reach of regulation.

The bill, as originally written, would have had a possibly devastating impact on the small farms, and value added producers that form the backbone of our burgeoning food movement. Senator Jon Tester (D Montana) is a farmer himself and thus recognizes the struggles small family farmers face. That's why the amendment makes sense. The amendment will exempt small farms that sell locally or direct to consumers or restaurants and whose gross income is less than $500,000 per year, from many of the more expensive, onerous regulations.

It speaks to the strength of our food movement that the Tester amendment remained in the bill for its many iterations and throughout the budgetary snafus that almost killed it. Widespread organization and thousands of calls and emails by concerned citizens persuaded Senators on both sides of the aisle to keep the amendment, despite frantic lobbying and a misinformation campaign by agribusiness.

Not all of the opposition came from agribusiness. A small number of well-intentioned food safety and consumer protection advocates thought the Tester Amendment was a terrible idea. They argued that small farms should not be let off the hook because contamination can happen anywhere in the supply chain.

The Tester Amendment was really a rather measured attempt to fix the parts of the bill that would subject small farmers to expensive federal HACCP/HARCP requirements [formal risk assessment and contamination prevention plans], as well as the federal produce safety standards. Small farmers will still be subject to all existing federal food safety laws as well as all state and local laws.

It's true that no food is sterile and problems can crop up in any size operation, but I think the importance of supporting our nation's small farmers, so that we can have a fairer, tastier, healthier food system for all, far outweighs any small food safety risk. I believe whole-heartedly that the human scale of the operations that are part of our Farm to Fork program, as well as the fact that we can trace our supply chain, will stop potential food safety problems before they harm our diners.