Part two of a three part discussion with Harry Hamil, founder of North Carolina’s Black Mountain Farmers Market, on how he would change the Senate food safety bill to lessen the impact on small and sustainable agriculture

Harry Hamil has worked to revive local, healthy food for people in western North Carolina since 1995. He and his wife, Elaine, work full time growing, distributing and retailing locally grown food at the Black Mountain Farmers Market, a year-round market the couple founded in 2003. 
Since the passage of the House Food Safety Enhancement Act (H.R. 2749) last July, Hamil–who has a rare affinity for detail and a keen understanding of the policy making process–has focused full time on the pending FDA Food Safety Modernization Act (S.510) in the Senate, advocating for changes that would help lessen what he foresees as a detriment to the burgeoning small and sustainable agriculture movement. 

Food Safety News
had a chance to discuss, in detail, some changes Hamil would like to see made to the food safety bill before it clears the Senate.

See Part I of the discussion from yesterday’s FSN here.

Part II: Give the FDA adequate resources, improve accountability, and increase food safety education

“What we have in this bill, at this point in time, is no discussion of funding,” Harry points out. “We have lots of mandates, but no funding.”

“We have to give the FDA (and USDA) adequate funding, because they clearly have not been funded adequately. The funding is, in my opinion, what we should have focused on first. It doesn’t do any good to have a good rule if no one is enforcing it.”

The House food safety bill would charge an annual, flat registration fee of $500 on all facilities that hold, process, or manufacture food to help defray the costs of food safety activities–but the fee would only raise a fraction of the funds the agency needs and the authority to collect the fees would expire after 2014.

Harry is in favor of the agency collecting fees to help pay for a revamped regulatory program, as long as those fees are appropriately scaled.

“If the government is having to do something for a particular industry then that industry needs to be footing the bill–I think that idea is great.”

“I think a single fee, on other hand, is absolutely crazy,” Hamil thinks it would be much more reasonable to base FDA fees off of gross profit so that small producers are not disproportionally affected.

In addition to ensuring adequate funding to back the mandates in the Senate food safety bill, Hamil thinks Congress should specify mandates and benchmarks to guide how the money is spent.

Accountability and the 2008 tomato Salmonella mishap

Hamil also supports adding a provision to the food safety legislation that would mitigate the negative economic impact that recalls and outbreak announcements can have on farmers.

When tomatoes were wrongly implicated in a nationwide Salmonella Saintpaul outbreak in 2008, causing between $100-500 million in losses for the fresh tomato industry, the economic devastation to tomato farmers hit close to home for Hamil.

“It terribly impacted the state of North Carolina’s tomato growers when they were trying to recover from two terrible years of drought,” recalls Hamil.

“It was an extremely important year for tomato growers here in the state and the FDA has a recall in which the only potential culprits, according to their statistical analysis–which was a very pitiful statistical analysis, because it turned out to be wrong–they never found a single case that was directly tied to tomatoes,” and, Hamil adds, “It was always, from the very start only involving red slicer tomatoes and roma tomatoes.

“No colored tomato, any color other than red, and no cherry tomato was every involved in it. But they worded [the announcement] by saying ‘you need to be worried about tomatoes, but IF you’re going to eat a tomato, then you need to avoid red slicers and tomatoes.'”

Hamil found the FDA’s communication approach to be woefully misleading to the public. The FDA should have been more clear about which varieties of tomatoes were being investigated, and which were not, says Hamil.

As he points out, tomatoes from North Carolina weren’t even in the marketplace when the outbreak started happening, “We had zero possibility that were involved in the outbreak, but it took them over a week to take us off the list, as I recall, it was over a week.”

As Hamil sees it, a poorly worded press release exacerbated what was already an extraordinarily damaging incident for tomato growers. He thinks the incident highlights the need for improved accountability at the FDA.

“No one, as far as I can tell, was ever held accountable for that. When someone at the FDA makes a mistake, then they need to be held accountable,” says Hamil. When we grow and process food, we are held accountable, so they need to be held accountable as well.”

Increase food safety education and the accessibility of information

In November, Senator Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) introduced the Growing Safe Food Act (S. 2758) to provide technical assistance and education for small and medium sized farmers, food processors, and wholesalers to help comply with the new food safety regulations.

The training would be administered through existing USDA programs and would offer grants to state agriculture departments, extension services, agricultural trade associations, and universities.

There was some speculation that Senator Stabenow’s language might get added to S. 510 during markup in November. It ultimately was not added to the bill, but the possibility still lingers–especially with strong support from the sustainable agriculture community, including Hamil.

“The idea is that we already have in place, in the U.S. a truly federalized system of disseminating agriculture information,” explains Hamil. “We have various entities within the federal government that generate information. At the state level, we have land grant colleges who collectively create the county extension service–which we call the extension service. Those services have been working really, really hard to develop tools over the years to educate farmers.”

“The same thing, to a lesser extent, gets done on the processing side, but on the agriculture side, there is just no question that there is a wonderful system in place. In fact, as I understand it, they are now knitting together the various state websites.”

On the topic of web resources, Hamil would even like to see a specific provision on the bill requiring the FDA have a more accessible–and specifically more searchable–website, so that farmers with questions about existing regulations can easily find answers.

“In my opinion, [the FDA’s website] is poorly organized and there’s no question that the search engine stinks,” says Hamil, who has had difficulty navigating the site to find important registration documents.

Since many small farmers are not mono-cropping, Hamil explains that it is especially imperative that the FDA have easy-to-access information, like guidance documents for crops, for farmers.

As Hamil points out, sustainable farmers will frequently grow upwards of 50 or 60, or even 100 different crops.

“If [the FDA] is going to be writing guidance and regulations on crop after crop after crop, we’re going to have to be looking for lots of information–and that information has go
t to be accessible.”

See tomorrow’s edition of Food Safety News for Part III of the discussion.