As federal officials update food-safety rules for the first time in decades, small farmers and state officials are warily eyeing the process.
By Rose Hoban
This past weekend, farmers from all over North Carolina and the rest of the country flocked to Raleigh for the annual Farm Aid concert, which for them is more than just a music festival: It’s a chance to compare notes and plan advocacy campaigns.
Part of the buzz this past weekend came from farmers and advocates wondering about what would happen with new federal regulations being written as a result of the Food Safety Modernization Act, which was passed by Congress in 2010 and signed into law by President Obama in January 2011.
Regulations rolled out in the past few years have met with fierce opposition from many corners of the agricultural community – small farmers, in particular. Now the Food and Drug Administration is taking another look at its regulations.
“This is a very long process,” said Alicia Harvie, who coordinates advocacy on agriculture issues for Farm Aid. “FSMA is the first major update since 1938, and Congress gave the FDA broad new powers with specific reach to the farm level.”
Harvie said the original rules were “one-size-fits-all” and would have been burdensome on the small independent farmers that her organization advocates for.
“We need to fix these rules so that we have safe food and that we ensure that small and mid-sized farms can continue to provide safe and healthy food, and … that the rules are not stifling local and regional food-system development, which is something consumers are clamoring for,” she said.
Farm vs. facility
Harvie said one problem with the regulations as they currently stand is that many small farmers create “value-added” products like pickles, jams, hams, pies and yogurt as a way to add to their income, and FSMA would consider farms doing any of this kind of work as a “facility,” subject to restrictions similar to those at a large food-processing factory.
“It might be just the fact that a farmer is collecting vegetables from a few neighbors and aggregating them into a community supported agriculture box,” said Brian Snyder from the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture, who was in town for the Farm Aid concert.
Snyder explained that the facility rules were really aimed at larger food processors such as the Peanut Corporation of America, which was the epicenter of a salmonella outbreak related to contaminated peanuts in 2008 and 2009. Hundreds of people were sickened in the outbreak that affected at least 46 states.
But when the FDA put the stringent new rules into effect, small farmers complained that they limited their ability to diversify their revenues by doing small-scale food processing.
“We’re asking for the feds to redefine ‘facility’ as narrowly as possible and define ‘farm’ as broadly as possible, because farmers are doing so many things,” Snyder said. “Otherwise, farmers will be tripping wires that turn them into facilities all over the place.”
Soil and water
Other regulations created by the FSMA have to do with the quality of water and soil that growers use on their farms, but many small farmers said the regulations were too strict.
For example, the water regulations would have required water used for irrigation to be as drinkable as water in a swimming pool.
“All our water comes from ponds. We irrigate with pond water for everything,” said Russ Vollmer, who is in the fifth generation to farm his family’s land in Bunn. But the FSMA water regulations would require Vollmer to either treat the pond water he’s using for irrigation or drill wells for potable water to put on his crops.
“That regulation would affect us in a pretty negative way in regards to our ability to continue to expand,” Vollmer said. He wondered aloud why farmers should be using drinking water to put on plants.
“Do you really want farmers sucking all their agricultural water out of the aquifer?” he asked.
Other regulations would have greatly restricted farmers’ ability to use compost and composted manure on their crops, something farmers have done for millennia.
“We’ve learned about the value of composting that manure,” said Snyder. “It tends to kill weed seeds and pathogens that might be in the manure, and makes it a more helpful product to the farmer.”
But he said there’s a lot of fear about manure being used on fields.
“The original rules would have made it prohibitive for farmers to use manure, and that’s such a time-honored practice that it wasn’t reasonable,” he said.
Snyder said that even as federal officials are writing revised rules, the science of compost is increasing knowledge on the value of composted soil. Composted soil adds biologic diversity to the soil in the form of many kinds of bacteria, many of them beneficial. Snyder said scientists are finding that having a high level of bacteria in soil actually serves to crowd out pathogens.
“We’re learning that in some cases it might be sterile soil environments that lead to an unhealthy system because pathogens don’t have any competition,” Snyder said. Science is finding that good bacteria outcompete the pathogenic organisms; as a result, it can be less likely that soil-based bacteria cause a food-safety outbreak.
Waiting on the changes
“The FDA has never really been on farms before now, and farmers have never been subject to these kinds of regulations before,” Snyder said. “The FDA has done some trial inspection routines on farms and there have been really negative interactions between inspectors and farmers.
“A lot of the inspectors have only done medical equipment facilities or big food-processing companies and they don’t know about farms. ”
But he said that to the FDA’s credit, they listened to the concerns of small farmers and went back to revise the rules.
Snyder’s organization, Farm Aid and North Carolina-based organizations such as the Rural Advancement Foundation International-USA have given input into the process; they expect to hear about the rule revisions in upcoming months.
Vollmer said he’s not against regulation and understands the need to create safe food.
“If we have an E. coli outbreak, or something on the Vollmer farm that’s traced back to us, we’re done,” he said.
Even as farmers encourage consumers to buy local, sustainable food, “The burden is on us to make sure that the product you’re buying is safe,” Vollmer said.
He said proper regulation can advance the local-food movement to becoming more mainstream, but that “there’s going to have to be some types of checks and balances along the way for consumers to say we trust direct marketing.”
But he and others said the regulations have to strike a balance that doesn’t make small farming an untenable business.
Vollmer’s neighbor Chad Ray, who is a 10th-generation farmer on Ray Family Farm in Bunn, said he doesn’t mind paying taxes and being regulated.
“I support schools and police protection and old people and poor people being taken care of, but I’m not for people knowing everything I do at all times and being in my business, because I’m all about surviving,” Ray said.
“It’s a balance,” he said. “I don’t want to devote one day of my week doing paperwork. That’s out of balance.”