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Debate Over Small Farm Exemptions Rolls On

With the food safety bill slated to be taken up by the Senate in mid-November–after moving at a snail’s pace for a year–the chatter about the bill’s impact, especially on the burgeoning local food movement, is on the uptick.

The debate centers around an amendment proposed by Senator Jon Tester (D-MT) and supported by Sen. Kay Hagan (D-NC) that would exempt small farmers and processors from preventive control plan requirements in the legislation, which most agree would be the most sweeping reform of the food safety system in several decades. The Tester amendment would apply to those earning less than $500,000 in annual sales that primarily direct market products to consumers, stores, or restaurants within the same state, or within 400 miles of the farm or processing facility.

Consumer and public health groups have been playing baseball with sustainable agriculture groups over the language of the Tester amendment, as the measure has a good chance of passing if brought to the Senate floor. Last week, the Make Our Food Safe coalition and the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition sent emails to Senate offices with competing messages.

The Make Our Food Safe coalition–which includes the American Public Health Association, Consumers Union and victims of foodborne illness, among others–is concerned that Tester’s amendment could have unintended consequences and pose health risks. The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition defends the amendment, saying it would improve food safety by creating “size-appropriate” alternatives to the preventative control requirements. See: Coalition Questions Tester’s Small-Farm Exemptions and NSAC Defends Small Farm Food Safety Exemptions.

Late last week, Make Our Food Safe reiterated concerns about the current version of the amendment, but also struck an understanding tone. The group sent another email to Senate staff: “The Make Our Food Safe coalition supports local and sustainable agriculture, understands that the Tester amendment is very important to NSAC, and respects the goals of the amendment. However, the amendment as drafted includes sweeping language that goes too far and would inadvertently undermine important public health protections in the legislation.”

In the email, Make Our Food Safe takes issue with a few of NSAC’s assertions, a few of which are excerpted here:

The MOFS coalition has proposed to limit the exemptions to low-risk foods, in order to ensure that foods most often linked to foodborne illness outbreaks, like leafy greens, are subject to safety standards. NSAC contends that “the food or commodity, in and of itself as a category, is not where the risk lies.”  To the contrary, whether the source of a pathogen is contaminated water, dirty facilities, or some other factor, people get sick when they eat the contaminated food.

The 400-mile radius criterion is not a wise choice for this safety legislation. NSAC supports an exemption from federal food safety requirements for “local” food, which the coalition defines as that being sold within 400 miles of a farmer or processor.  While it is true that this distance criterion was used in the Farm Bill, it was used in the context of a marketing program, not one based on safety.

The coalition also expressed concern that the 400-mile distance criterion could result in nearby foreign suppliers (such as Mexico) selling food not subject to U.S. safeguards to consumers in the United States.

– The Tester amendment provision adds two new categories of direct sales – direct sales to stores and restaurants – to an existing exemption intended only for sales to consumers at farmers markets and roadside farm stands.  This provision constitutes a major expansion of that exemption, not just a minor change.  When a sale is made directly to a consumer, there is a personal connection between the seller and the buyer, and such sales are necessarily quite limited in quantity and scope. However, if the class of buyers is substantially expanded to include retail stores and restaurants, the impact of any food safety problem could be much greater, affecting hundreds or thousands of far-flung store customers and restaurant patrons.

Food and Water Watch, which is part of the Make Our Food Safe coalition, has taken a different stance on the Tester amendment. The group’s executive director, Wenonah Hauter, said last month that two “critical components” should be added to the Senate bill: an amendment to ease the burden on small farmers and processors who sell their products directly to consumers, and a requirement for increased inspection frequency of food processing plants. See: Group Breaks Ranks on Small Farm Exemptions.

Yesterday, Elanor Starmer, Food and Water Watch’s western regional director penned a op-ed: Can Congress make a food-safety omelet without breaking the wrong eggs?, for Grist in favor of the Tester provision. Starmer calls the Tester amendment a good addition to the bill.

“It’s important to remember that the vast majority of our food system is controlled by a few giant companies. That’s why one food safety mishap sends the whole country running for the toilet. We need regulations that can protect us against this kind of madness,” writes Starmer. “But we also need to make sure that if my neighbors want to sell to the local supermarket, they won’t be stymied by food safety requirements they can never meet.”

In her article, Starmer also debunks hysteric internet rumors, discusses the challenge in regulating what she calls “a polarized food system,” and says: “It’s high time — past high time — to do something about the dreadful state of our food safety system.” 

© Food Safety News
  • Please post the new e-mail sent to our Senators by MOFS. I can find nothing about it on MOFS’s website.
    I would like the opportunity to read it myself.

  • The FSN headline misleads readers. Though the body of the article tells us that small processors are also included under Tester-Hagan, FSN has never pointed out they also have always included an important exemption for small pure packing facilities, storage facilities and distributors from the new requirement for a totally inappropriate Hazard Analysis and Risk-based Preventive Control (HARPC) plan.
    Despite my repeated requests for an example of one of these facilities being the original source of an outbreak, no one has ever provided me even a single case. HARPC plans are based upon there being processing where an intervention can reasonably be made. These facilities don’t do any processing; so the current Good Handling Procedures (cGHPs) and existing FDA transportation rules are obviously working. Pure packing, storage and distribution facilities should never have been included in S 510’s HARPC plan requirement in the first place.

  • Doc Mudd

    “writes Starmer. ‘But we also need to make sure that if my neighbors want to sell to the local supermarket, they won’t be stymied by food safety requirements they can never meet.'”
    Read: ‘My neighbors are entitled to utterly disregard food safety requirements in order to turn a profit selling to retail distributors.’
    Under the banner of ‘local’, the hubris and sense of entitlement in Starmer’s statement are appalling.

  • Please post the new e-mail sent to our Senators by MOFS. I can find nothing about it on MOFS’s website.
    I would like the opportunity to read it myself.

  • The FSN headline misleads readers. Though the body of the article tells us that small processors are also included under Tester-Hagan, FSN has never pointed out they also have always included an important exemption for small pure packing facilities, storage facilities and distributors from the new requirement for a totally inappropriate Hazard Analysis and Risk-based Preventive Control (HARPC) plan.
    Despite my repeated requests for an example of one of these facilities being the original source of an outbreak, no one has ever provided me even a single case. HARPC plans are based upon there being processing where an intervention can reasonably be made. These facilities don’t do any processing; so the current Good Handling Procedures (cGHPs) and existing FDA transportation rules are obviously working. Pure packing, storage and distribution facilities should never have been included in S 510’s HARPC plan requirement in the first place.

  • Anthony Boutard

    The Tester Amendment does not exempt any farmer from meeting food safety requirements. It recognizes that local governments have been very effective in regulating food safety at a local level. State and local agencies have broad powers allowing them to seize unwholesome food, and shut down establishments that produce such food. The question is whether it makes sense to federalize the regulation of local food sales.
    Over the past two decades, our nation has conducted a large experiment in food safety. On one hand, thousands of farms have moved to more traditional direct marketing of their produce locally to the public, restaurants and grocery stores. Farmers’ markets have proliferated. The very rapid growth in this sector has not seen a corresponding increase in food borne illnesses. On the other hand, the larger food industry has undergone consolidation. The longer chains of custody and different food handling practices necessary to move large volumes of food have increased the extent and severity of food borne illness incidents in that sector.
    The Tester Amendment uses a simple metric to peel away local sales that are adequately regulated at local level. A similar approach is used in the federal regulation of motor vehicles. Drivers of trucks over 26,000 pounds gross vehicle weight are regulated by a host of federal laws. Drivers of bicycles, cars and light commercial vehicles are licensed and regulated by state and local governments.
    Under the Tester Amendment, smaller farms would be regulated by state and local governments. Those governments can adopt and enforce the provisions in S. 510 on their own initiative. The federal involvement called for in S. 510 is needed for a large farm that may be spread of over more than one state, with corporate headquarters in another state, and selling food in several other states. It is a waste of federal resources for the FDA to keep track of the bicyclists and family cars of the farming sector.

  • Doc Mudd

    Small local outbreaks of food poisoning become a calculated risk necessary to preserve the convenience and profits of small local operators? No problem, so long as only a few folks at a time are sickened within the confines of one’s home state, so long as “small, local” incidents remain off the national radar screen?
    One seldom finds what one isn’t actively looking for. The ‘experiment” in the relative safety of “small & local” food producers hasn’t begun until we begin looking. And that is precisely why opponents of safe food and S.510 fight so feverishly for exemption through the Testor loopholes – these producers, of all people, know what we are gonna find when we begin looking – and they obviously are worried.

  • Nick Naranja

    So many of the current food safety rules are absolutely ridiculous and not appropriate for small producers. The guy that raises mangos down the street from me simply cannot afford to bring in some auditor for $1200+ to look at his farm. We also have to realize that an ear of sweet corn is not the same thing as a canteloupe or even a green bean. And lets face it, in Florida every field has likely had an alligator in it or has an alligator in the nearby canal.

  • Rocky Mountain Farmer

    If one is concerned that one’s neighboring farmers are selling contaminated produce from their farm stand, then sally on down to your local Wal-Mart Superstore to buy your food–this is America, land of free enterprise, after all. I have worked in the local small farm community in my Colorado town for two years and not once have I heard, seen, read about or know of complaints from folks suffering illness from contaminated meat, eggs, produce, grain, or cheese. Is it a media conspiracy against big agriculture? Mr. Mudd and others might say so…
    What about this “small government” so many people seem to be demanding these days?