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Over-Regulating Farms Won’t Make Food Safer

With foodborne illnesses affecting 48 million people per year, causing almost 3,000 deaths and costing approximately $9 billion in health care costs, 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 percent 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.  Sen. 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.

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This post first appeared in The Huffington Post on Jan. 6, 2011.  Reprinted with permission from the author.

 

© Food Safety News
  • Doc Mudd

    What a welcome surprise, being presented with a slick post-sale sales pitch from a skilled entrepreneur like Mr. Bauccio, a seasoned profiteer with a vested interest in keeping the wool pulled down thick over our eyes. His pretentious lauding of the Tester amendment is laughable. At the same time it insults the intelligence of any scientifically literate, rational-thinking person.
    His snake oil pitch begins by helpfully defining for us our ‘problem’: “Consider one of the largest outbreaks of salmonella in history”, he instructs – the implication being food safety applies only to mass poisonings that attract the attention of the CDC or FDA. But, it is stupid and disingenuous to deliberately misidentify “the problem” so narrowly. Food poisoning and its prevention are local challenges and local opportunities – food safety emanates outward from every farm across every processing floor into every kitchen and onto every plate, regardless of size.
    Having spuriously defined ‘the problem’, Mr. Bauccio asserts; “I worry about the safety of our food supply”. But he cheerfully alerts us to a most reassuring discovery that he has somehow stumbled upon: “…our nation’s small farms are not the problem…” Hallelujah! Thank heavens, how convenient that through devout blind faith and hope we may safely assume pathogenic bacteria and viruses will scrupulously steer clear of orthodox “small” farms, “small” processing floors and “small” portions in snobbish eateries with big prices.
    OK, label me a skeptic, but blind faith, hope and worry are not recognized in the scientific community as effective safety strategies – for driving, for flying, for food production or for much of anything else, for that matter. Ah, but not to worry! Mr. Bauccio’s food safety strategy is bolstered by the ultimate scientific technique; “fostering personal connections between producers, chefs, and diners”. Seriously. We learn, “these personal connections foster trust and integrity…” Oh, OK, great, we may now add ‘trust’ to our list of approved safety strategies, along with blind faith, hope and worry. Yeah, but can personal connections accurately evaluate bacterial contamination? And isn’t that the same strategy Salmonella has in mind – establishing a cozy personal connection with my colon?
    But wait, there’s more! “These personal connections foster trust and integrity, of course, but it’s not only about trust; it’s also about the mechanics of traceability” OK, traceability, now we’re getting somewhere. But there’s a little problem. Senator Tester’s concept of adequate traceability for small producers ‘tracks back’ only to the most recent cash transaction in some parking lot or on some loading dock somewhere. One does not have to be a board certified epidemiologist to recognize this is not ‘traceability’ by any meaningful definition, but instead just an insulting amateur misinterpretation and mockery of professional methodology.
    In the final analysis, Mr. Bauccio correctly distills the essence of the Tester amendment: “the amendment will exempt small farms that sell locally or direct to consumers or restaurants” Exactly. And, most of the time that will be ‘close enough for state work’. But not every time. Pretentious little markets and restaurants spin fascinating yarns glorifying the provenance of their pricey eats, but they are selective. They won’t necessarily warn you if your salad greens came from some grubby goofball who worships manure and believes in the immune-stimulating benefits of a good dose of Salmonella or Listeria monocytogenes every once in a while. Nor will they conspicuously fawn over food purchased from the manager’s loser brother-in-law who got it who-knows-where and could give a crap for you and your family so long as he gets paid cash. Tester protects our fundamental right to sell foods of dubious origin and questionable safety from the back of a rusty station wagon. Caveat emptor, baby, caveat emptor.

  • cbeecher

    FB,
    I enjoyed reading your commentary and agree with it philosophically on many counts. But I’m thinking that the readers would be interested in knowing what food-safety requirements your growers — large and small alike — need to meet before they can supply Bon Appetit. I’m assuming that there’s more to it than you know them personally and trust them and can trace any problems that might pop up back to the source.
    Thanks so much for providing us with this information — or a link where we can find it. I think this would be helpful for readers and growers alike.
    Cookson

  • Tina Bartsch

    Dear Doc Mudd
    I find your comments about small farmers quite insulting. Small farmers that I know work hard to provide quality products accessible to all, whether they own a rusty station wagon or not.
    Where do you get your food from?
    We cannot continue to support factory farming at its current level from a health, environmental or economic point of view – these are facts that anyone can research. It simply isn’t sustainable.

  • Cookson Beecher

    FB,
    I enjoyed reading your commentary and agree with it philosophically on many counts. But I’m thinking that the readers would be interested in knowing what food-safety requirements your growers — large and small alike — need to meet before they can supply Bon Appetit. I’m assuming that there’s more to it than you know them personally and trust them and can trace any problems that might pop up back to the source.
    Thanks so much for providing us with this information — or a link where we can find it. I think this would be helpful for readers and growers alike.
    Cookson

  • Doc Mudd

    “Where do you get your food from?”
    Well, Tina, my family no longer consumes food from blustering ‘small producers’ since I have learned from those same producers’ comments here at FSN durng the S.510 debate that food safety is not important to them – only profits – and I had suspected all along I was taking a pretty good hosing on their overpriced merchandise, as it is.
    If you doubt, click back through some earlier articles and see for yourself how seldom pro-small-farm commenters even mention customer safety (I don’t recall any substantive instance). Their concern is always focused upon themselves and their fear of government conspiracies and how much money they can make when they don’t have to screw around with any bothersome food safety considerations. My family no longer supports that attitude and we see no reason to be treated in such a patronizing fashion, no reason to risk being poisoned when we can simply stay away.
    .
    .
    .
    “We cannot continue to support factory farming at its current level from a health, environmental or economic point of view – these are facts that anyone can research. It simply isn’t sustainable.”
    Trot out your scientific “research”, then, Tina (you’ve obviously been surfing activist echo chamber websites). You parrot a trendy misconception that keeps you in good standing with various activist cults who are only using you to press their own agendas.
    Of course, your know-it-all armchair cult-agrarians don’t have any viable alternative to modern agriculture. Simple dung carts and long handled hoes are not going to keep up with the world’s 6 billion hungry human souls each and every day. Who’s going to supply all of that stoop labor in the fields; you, me? (Hint: it sure as hell ain’t gonna be me, sister)
    If the dreamers ever devise a truly workable concept of “sustainable” agriculture you will know, because it will be widely adopted without hesitation. Until then, all of the ignorant carping and moaning and finger-wagging and sniping at our remarkable modern professional food system amounts to mental masturbation.
    It’s ironic, really. A year ago I, too, supported the general idea of ‘small farmers’ without giving it any particular thought. Probably still would if those ‘small farmers’ didn’t turn out to be so stunning in their scientific illiteracy, so incredibly selfish in their focus on profits, so downright hateful toward common folks (they are just too fat & stupid to know how to feed themselves and their children, right?) and so arrogant in their childish condemnation of successful modern agriculture (that dreadful ‘factory farming’ must certainly be causing the sky to fall, isn’t it?). Meanwhile, they haven’t succeeded in producing much of anything of global significance. And, they don’t seem any too reluctant to over-charge for what little they do produce.
    I learned to “know my farmer”, and I’m more than a little disappointed.