Part one 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.

Part I: Regulation should be appropriately scaled

Hamil, like many small and sustainable agriculture advocates, sees S.510, as it’s currently written, as “one-size-fits-all” regulation with the potential to force small growers and producers out of the business.  

“They’re calling for increased regulation because of globalization,” says Hamil. “We aren’t globalizing, folks. We’re producing it locally–local health food for local people. The level of regulation that applies to us clearly is different.” Hamil would like to see the regulations in the bill tiered so that they are more appropriately scaled.

Hamil points to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA’s) new egg rule, finalized last summer, to help minimize Salmonella Enteritidis, as an example of of the kind of tiered regulation that could be applied to the rest of the food industry.

“The egg rule says very clearly that the rule shall apply to egg producers with greater than 3,000 layers,” says Hamil, who explains that the rule is tiered because the smaller producers, of which there are few, just don’t have the same impact. “Federal regulation needs to focus on those food production enterprises with the potential to distribute products to large numbers of people rather than those distributing to small numbers of customers.”

Hamil advocates for a tiered approach based on annual gross profit. He’d like to see the language in S.510 amended so that sections 418 and 419 of the bill–on hazard analysis and risk-based controls, and produce safety–would only apply to entities that are above a certain threshold, to be determined by the FDA.

The House version of the food safety legislation contains some exemptions for farmers who sell directly to consumers, restaurants, or grocery stores–but according to Hamil it’s not about the small producers being exempt. “I’m not arguing in favor of exemption. What I’m simply saying is that there needs to be a tiered approach to it.”

“The word exemption gives the impression that you’re unregulated,” adds Hamil. “The reality is, we’re not unregulated! There are plenty of regulations that apply already to what we are doing.”

Plus, Hamil doesn’t buy into the notion that there are exemptions for direct-sale farmers in the House bill. 

“On direct sales you don’t have to keep up on traceback, but no retail person has to keep up on traceback on the direction to the customer…well in direct sales there is no other direction.” To say that small farmers selling directly to consumers are exempt from the trace back provisions is, as Hamil puts it “correct, but also grotesquely misleading.”

Though Hamil is not advocating for across the board exemptions for small and sustainable growers and producers, he doesn’t hide the fact that he believes they pose a far lesser food safety risk.

“In most of the recent outbreaks of foodborne illness, the main source of the problem was large centralized processing and distribution and its retail distribution network,” says Hamil.  “The problems have not been with growing and harvesting nor small scale processing and distribution.”

See Food Safety News on Monday and Tuesday for Parts II and III of the discussion.