‘No one is exempt from food safety,’ but USDA, FDA show sensitivity to small farmer concerns

Deputy Secretary of Agriculture Kathleen Merrigan addressed food safety concerns last week in the first online event for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) ‘Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food’ initiative to support local food.

The online chat, which was held on Facebook with a live video stream, featured Merrigan with an array of fresh produce from her local farmers market. During the discussion, Merrigan emphasized the importance of a strong food safety system, but likely quelled some small farmer concern over pending food safety reform legislation in Congress, which would increase up the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) authority, mandate, and budget to regulate the food supply.

The House passed its version of FDA food safety reform in July and the Senate is expected to take up a similar bill once health care reform dies down.

Though USDA-regulated products are not included in the pending reform, some farmers who process food on-site, or create value-added products that enter commerce (most direct sales to consumers at farmers markets or restaurants excluded) would be required to comply with certain FDA regulations–adding another layer to the complicated FDA-USDA food safety overlap.

Many small farmers have expressed opposition the bills, fearing burdensome federal regulation on the farm–a reality that could force some small farmers out of business, they say.

“No one is exempt from food safety, big, small, medium–no one is exempt,” said Merrigan to a series of questions from Facebook viewers curious about the pending legislation may have on small producers.

Merrigan also assured viewers that the impact on small farmers would be taken into account. “It is incumbent upon us to be sensitive to those concerns,” added Merrigan.

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Merrigan pointed to several potential USDA initiatives that could help local producers meet food safety standards for local and regional distribution. 

Commissioner of Food and Drugs, Margaret Hamburg has also indicated that her agency will be sensitive to small farm concerns in crafting the details of food safety regulation. 

“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,” said Hamburg, before the United Fresh Produce Association’s annual Washington Public Policy Conference last month.

Groups pushing for the food safety bill in the Senate hope that the increased attention to small-scale local producer concerns at both USDA and FDA coupled with Agriculture-friendly Tom Harkin taking chairmanship of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions–which is overseeing the food safety bill–may prove to be the right formula for bridging the tension that has developed between proponents and small farmers who fear cumbersome federal regulations on the farm.

Photo: Deputy Secretary of Agriculture Kathleen Merrigan listening to Georgia O’Neal of Tree and Leaf Farm in Waterford, VA on the farm’s growing methods. Tree and Leaf provides sustainable produce to local farmers markets. Photo courtesy of USDA flickr.