The Montana Public Health Association sent Senator Jon Tester (D-MT) a letter last week urging him to reconsider his amendments to the pending food safety bill. Earlier this month, Tester proposed two amendments that would exempt small farms from certain aspects of the legislation, which was written to increase the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA’s) authority and capacity to regulate food.

Tester’s provisions exempt producers that add value to food through processing and whose adjusted gross income is less than $500,000 per year, and producers who sell their food directly to market (such as farmers’ markets) from federal preventative control, traceback and recordkeeping requirements.

According to Tester–and small, local, sustainable agriculture advocates–small producers already have to comply with local and state food safety regulations. They believe adding federal regulations would force many out of business at a time when demand for food grown on small, local, sustainable farms is growing rapidly.

But as the Montana Public Health Association (MPHA) pointed out in its letter to Tester, “Reliance on state and local regulations…is not a viable option for Montana, as there are currently NO state or local regulations in place to guide small growers in Montana.”
“While we fully support the promotion of small, locally grown food, we firmly believe that standardized, sensible standards and inspections that promote food safety need to be in place for producers large and small,” read the letter.

“As an organization with a diverse membership seeking optimal health and strong public policies for all Montanans and the nation, we are concerned by the potentially adverse public health consequences that may result due to your recently proposed amendments to the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act (S. 510), that would exempt certain farms and facilities from important public health- related protections–product traceback, record-keeping and produce safety standards.”
The public health association points to a recent study conducted by Montana State University and led by Sanitarian Tootz Taszut titled, Town Harvest Garden, Good Agricultural Handling Processes, which determined that similar, existing federal food safety guidelines are “completely workable and did not require additional staffing or increased workloads.” 

Tester and the agriculture community supporting his amendments maintain, however, that small farms are not the source of the nation’s food safety problems, and should not be subject to additional federal regulation.

“Let’s face it, dangerous food-borne outbreaks don’t start with family agriculture,” Tester said earlier this month.  “Food produced on that scale shouldn’t be subject to the same expensive federal regulations as some big factory that mass produces food for the entire country.”

  • Margie MacDonald

    The fallacy in this critique is that the federal government is the only protection for local consumers buying produce direct from farmers. County sanitarians in Montana already can and do exercise oversight over any produce that is being bought direct from farmers and prepared in institutions, restaurants, stores, or schools. Farmers Market managers can and do set standards for their vendors. Individuals buying direct from farms through CSA’s or farm stands do not need the federal government as a mediator.

  • Doc Mudd

    *”Individuals buying direct from farms through CSA’s or farm stands do not need the federal government as a mediator.”*
    Until someone gets sick. And the finger pointing and litigation gets underway. Then the emotionaly charged question will be: “Where was USDA, the public health system and why didn’t they protect my child or my elderly parents from this terrible risk?”.
    Food poisoning does not respect the wishful dreams of romantic consumers nor the spurious assurances of cleverly quaint food merchandisers (large or small, local or distant) who are competing for your money. Last I knew, CSA farms collected a cash fee up front from their members. Cash. It corrupts.

  • dangermaus

    Doc Mudd,
    You’re looking at this from the wrong perspective. The food we’re getting out of the heavily-regulated, centralized systems we’ve got now is making a very large percentage of us fat, diabetic, and allergic. Yes, it’s arguable that there might be more individuals that come down with specific food-borne illnesses, but I doubt it. Plus, how could we even know that without a real test? I trust my CSA farmer far, far more than I trust any USDA inspector.
    The lawsuit thing is a real concern, but the way to deal with that is with tort reform. People should be responsible for the actions they take (like buying raw milk).