The nation’s biggest fresh produce handlers, distributors and retailers received a gift last week when Food Safety News published an apparently long-planned Q&A with Bob Whitaker, Chief Science Officer for the Produce Marketing Association.  Dr. Whitaker used this opportunity to decry the supposedly grave threat to public safety from small farms that will escape the dragnet of FDA supervision under S.510, the Food Safety Modernization Act, if it includes the Tester-Hagen amendment.

As Food Safety News and the ag media have reported, after Senate negotiators and representatives of the Make Our Food Safe coalition last week agreed to include the Tester-Hagan amendment in S.510, the lobbyist associations for the big produce handlers, distributors and retailers launched a counterattack on this reasonable approach to supporting public health and local food system development.

It has been interesting to see how effective their campaign has been.  Dr. Marion Nestle recently quoted with approval Dr. Whitaker’s comments to the effect that it’s ridiculous for small farms to complain about a little paperwork and that adopting the industry’s food safety regimens are easy and necessary.  What is also interesting about the anti-Tester-Hagan campaign is its proponents’ remarkable lack of awareness of the day-to-day cultural and economic realities of the small farms that are on the verge of revolutionizing America’s food system.

Three-acre organic market gardeners in Chatham County, NC irrigating their plants with from a pond are as committed to protecting the health of their customers as 1,000-acre lettuce growers in Monterey County, CA using triple-treated municipal waste water, if not more so.  The direct relationships that the small producer has with the customers, and the inherently limited nature of her customer base, create a market incentive for protecting those customers as strong as any in the produce business.

Seeking protections for those growers from the proscriptions of FDA regulators regarding the proper means of assuring safety on the farm is not a reflection of a lower desire for safe food, as the big handlers, distributors and retailers would have the public believe.  In fact, the Tester-Hagan amendment, in conjunction with the totality of S.510, is a well-designed means for supporting the ability of small farmers to provide the healthiest food possible.

But the corporate giants that dominate the fresh produce industry to cannot conceive of the means for managing contamination issues in the local food sector.  Those agribusiness behemoths’ only frames of reference are their own capital-intensive, compliance department-managed, standardized, large-scale operations.  From this perspective, the realities of low-input, owner-manned and -operated, diversified, small-scale operations are unfathomable.

I have experienced this in meeting with food safety regulators and auditors.  I have seen firsthand the attitude of state Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) inspectors change from incredulity that any small farm would have a problem with GAP to breakthrough realization that GAP auditing every one of the 20 or more different crop plantings that a small diversified producer may harvest each year would in fact be cost prohibitive.  I’ve heard the biggest produce commodity growers in North Carolina, be they apples or sweet potatoes, acknowledge that the paperwork and testing protocols they have to develop, implement, monitor and review for FDA or GAP certifiers would be impossible for their small farm brethren.

The FDA’s own guidance just published for processing cut leafy greens, which any local garden that prepares a salad mix for sale to local restaurants is potentially subject to, estimates that it would take a trained corporate team 100 hours to develop an appropriate safety plan, not to mention the cost of tests that such a plan would have to require.  The husband-and-wife team likely operating a produce farm for a local food market, in addition to their off-farm jobs, don’t have a spare two-and-a-half weeks to create a plan, let alone the expertise of a team of food technologists, lawyers and engineers necessary to come up with a plan in 100 hours.

There is room to believe that the big handlers, distributors and retailers driving the food safety train–whose bagged, ready-to-eat salad mixes are responsible for 99 percent of the outbreaks of pathogen contamination in leafy greens, despite their supposedly state-of-the-art GAP and Good Handling Practices plans–are willfully ignorant in their lack of awareness of the impact of their style of food safety on the small farm.  Dr. Whitaker’s PMA, along with United Fresh and Western Growers, have spent the last several years trying to get authority from the USDA to establish a “voluntary” national food safety regime for leafy greens based on the model of California’s Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement.  The California experience has shown that the big boys’ model is devastating to low-input growers, as well as organic farming and soil conservation programs.  

Among the thousands of comments received by USDA on the federal leafy greens marketing proposal, the vast majority opposed it, including more than thirty agricultural organizations, ranging from sustainable farming alliances, to state departments of agriculture, to state Farm Bureaus, that were frozen out of the process of developing the rule.  Those comments offered suggestions for how to accommodate the purported goals of the agreement and the actual conditions on small farms, suggestions that have been completely ignored by the big handlers, distributors and retailers and their lobbyists.

The effect of changes won to S. 510 by sustainable agriculture advocates, including and in addition to the Tester-Hagan Amendment, is not to exempt small and local food producers from the need to manage pathogens, but to foster the development of multiple climate-, scale- and market-appropriate models for promoting safe and healthy food in a sector of the farm economy largely ignored heretofore by research institutions.  Before we won the inclusion of Tester-Hagan, we fought for the Stabenow amendment, which would create incentives for universities and trade groups to tailor research and training to the unique conditions of small and diversified farming operations, so that those growers can have access to the best, most up-to-date, most relevant information.  Tester-Hagan increases the leverage for these farms and food producers to demand increased training and research resources for the local food sector.

The small farm protections in S. 510 may in fact create a space for local food to catch up with the safety management investments that the big produce companies have made in their systems of national harvest and distribution.  With the best available safety resources targeted in the most appropriate ways for every sector of the produce business, the emerging small, farmer-driven system will be on equal footing with the entrenched giant, distributor-driven one.  Then maybe we will have a chance to see head-to-head whether diffused, distributed localized food systems work to better protect public health, encompassing nutrition, pollution, as well as pathogen control, than our dominant, highly-concentrated national system does today.

The local food community welcomes such a competition.  The big handlers, distributors and retailers appear less enthusiastic.

Editor’s note: With Senate action on the Food Safety Bill approaching, we received more opinion pieces than we had space in our format, so these contributions from Roland McReynolds and Chuck Jolley are being posted in the news section.

  • Steve Gilman

    This is an EXCELLENT perspective!!
    Steve Gilman

  • Doc Mudd

    “Protect small farms” — screw that, protect food consumers.
    Mr. McReynolds, your op-ed is little more than paranoid mudslinging directed against your imagined boogiemen “big handlers, distributore and retailers”. Nothing more than a tacky, hateful distraction away from what ostensibly was to be your argument: an explanation of why we should “protect small farms”, a cogent explanation of why my family should owe any hobby farmer a second living at any cost of safety or treasure.
    You clearly named the intended benefactor of my Tester-coerced tolerance and support for your elitist fantasy; “The husband-and-wife team likely operating a produce farm for a local food market, in addition to their off-farm jobs…”. How greedy is that, fully employed folks insisting that their hobby also pay off big.
    You waste our time and insult our intelligence with your trendy utopian dream and with your cheesy negative campaigning, Sir. To hell with you and your effete “small farms”.

  • Jerry Wigman

    As you can see, big corporate farm shills like “Doc Mudd” (if that is his real name) have absolutely no logical reason to say anything negative about this article.
    Instead, they mud-sling just like “Doc Mudd” (coincidental?). What a moron. He tries to sound intellectual but just comes off as an idiot.
    Who says “treasure”? I would say 99.9% of all cases of pathogens, toxins, and adulterated food comes from massive corporate farm operations. So why then would we want to put in place the same statutes on small farmers that won’t significantly protect anyone anyway and just cost taxpayers more money for useless regulations that should be specifically for the big corporate farms that are the cause of 99.9% of the problems in the first place?
    A devious moron like Doc Mudd (an obvious shill for corporate farm lobbyists), knows that these regulations will put small farmers out of business because they don’t have the money to cover the millions in overheard it would take to become compliant. That’s exactly what big corporate farms want. They don’t want competition from local organic small farmers. Why would they? Those organic small farmers hurt big farms bottom line. Why would anyone want some pesticide-filled GMO garbage that pollutes the environment and has a high likelihood of carrying pathogens when a person can pay the same price or a little more for local sustainable and organic produce that keeps money in their local economy rather than giving it to some evil corporate farmers that want to control the entire food supply?
    The answer is obvious. Everyone inherently knows who needs more regulation and who doesn’t need additional regulations. You solve the problems at the source of the problems not some place completely different in order to put out of business the people that are in direct competition with the big businesses that are creating all the problems. That is just completely insane and outright evil. And to tell you the truth, that’s what Doc Mudd and his corporate puppet masters are: completely and outright evil and manipulative.

  • dangermaus

    The major difference I see between people that support or oppose the Tester Amendment is this:
    1. People that oppose FSMA altogether, or only support it with Tester tend to be small farmers or members of small farmers’ groups. They say FSMA will hurt them.
    2. The people that say FSMA is great and oppose Tester are generally lobbyists, regulators, or corporate execs – these guys basically say FSMA might hurt small farmers, but that they should just shut their stupid faces and let industrial food production become the only economically viable way to produce food in the US).
    If you believe that small-scale food production is better than industrial-scale food production, there isn’t a question about who to trust.

  • Frank

    Mr. Wigman, you are completely and totally correct. Big business wants no competition or regulation on them.

  • dangermaus

    I doubt Mudd is a corporate shill… Even big ag would be embarrassed by him, and would have fired him long ago.
    Personally, I like his posts. He generally makes it look like the only way you could support some of this FSMA crap is if you’re completely oblivious to the world around you, and have a “government will solve everything” mentality.

  • don’t tread on me

    Doc Mudd, you have no clue of what this bill will do to our civil rights. You are full of nonsense, and it is sheep like you that allow this tyranical government to tak our liberties away one by one. Shill. Of course, people like you don’t care as long as you have your precious starbucks, espn, and mcdonalds. Doc Mudd says “Sure, I’ll report to the elitists in my government issued bio-diesel vehicle to receive my food voucher and make sure they are keeping good tabs on me. I wonder if they would be so polite as to let me do it after this dawsons creek rerun.” Pathetic sheep.

  • crs

    99.9%? One of the easiest numbers to make up. Have a look at Mr. Jolley’s article and do some research before providing creative statistics. And come up with some solutions to food safety issues yourself before decrying government intervention. Name calling isn’t an effective method of constructive criticism.

  • DD

    I think that the husband & wife small farm team works full time to support their farming “hobby”. That is hardly greedy.

  • Doc Mudd

    Heh, heh. Just look at your hateful selves raging and blustering and bullshitting…lots of childish venom being spit in my face, but no defensible argument is offered supporting the selfish pretense of Mr. McReynolds’ off-topic essay – “Protect small farms”.
    If it’s justifiable, then what’s the problem? Simply explain why you and I and my family and yours owe these pretentious self-styled “small farmers” a living for merely pursuing their hobbies. Do we also owe livings to recreational boaters, birders, gamblers, world travelers? Where does the entitlement stop?
    Any prospect of hobbyists feeding the world is delusional and is not worthy of serious support. Exempting elitist commercial gardeners from basic safety standards is ludicrous…and needlessly risky. There is no need to “protect small farms” by compromising the protection of food consumers. There is no need to entertain such political theatre in the nation’s capitol. Indeed there is no need to protect affluent elitist gourmands at any level – they possess ample resources to indulge themselves without the Tester-coerced support and ‘protection’ of every Average Joe.
    Doc Mudd is not a shill (alas, never has been), except of course to agitate for common sense and factual reasoning. You quasi-religious hobby farm cultists can all go take a flying, er, leap. And take your farcical ‘David & Goliath’ schtick and your piddling volumes of manure-laden produce with you. Doc Mudd and Average Joe will not miss you or your hyper-inflated sense of entitlement.

  • Farmer Kent

    The only thing I have read here that is elitist and delusional is Doc Mudd’s comments which show a complete lack of any comprehension of the crap food he stuffs in his pie hole. The latest research shows that 72% of small farmers work off farm and produce almost 50% of the countries food. Not because they want to make a bunch of extra cash from their “Commercial Gardens”, but rather because farming does not pay the bills and they want to continue to farm. People do not universally want commercially produced, nutrient devoid food. If all you want to do is stuff McD’s down your throat, go for it. My customers meet me every time they come to our farm to pickup the healthy, non-GMO, no pesticide filled produce and appreciate that they have the choice to do so. I see them at church each week; my kids go to school with theirs. If we had any food-borne illness from my produce, I would be out of business in an instant and as such safety is a top priority. However the expenses Roland pointed out above would be unmanageable to an operation of our size.

  • Uncle Mac

    Doc Mudd is a pretentious, obnoxious piggy and he’s not worth repsonding to. Leave him to get cancer from eating GMOs and GM foods while he chews his cud. He is so inconsequential and irrelevant that only through insulting people on this forum and anywhere else he trolls can he even be acknowledged to exist as he sits in his mother’s basement at his computer, eating twinkies and moonpies and guzzling red bull.

  • Name: Mark

    The problem I have with the FDA is that its one big organization that’s in charge of regulating a hell of a lot of things, which is bad for them and bad for the people its built to protect; higher potential for foul-ups, in my opinion.
    In Canada (I’m doing this research on-the-fly, so bear with me) we have separate departments for everything, it seems. Food is regulated by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, drugs and dangerous product recalls by Health Canada, etc.

  • Mac

    Sadly, I fear that Doc Mudd is on par with a vast majority of people in our nation. To those people I say, visit your local farmer’s market, talk to any farmer or food producer there, and realize that local, organic and sustainable food is not an elitist ideal, but rather a humanitarian ideal.

  • Deb Klenke

    The biggest problem we have is that inspectors don’t do their job. We have a contamination problem and all of a sudden they find an increadible amount of things that caused it. Where were the inspectors, who should have noticed at least some of the deficiencies earlier. The answer isn’t more regulation, just a diligent oversite as had been mandated by previous law. If there are not enough inspectors to do the job, how will adding small farms to the mix help anything. The problems haven’t been caused by small farms.

  • Ms Small Farmer

    S 510 is NOT a food safety bill. It is about food fascism. Put the small producers out of business to reduce corporate competition. The Tester amendment is merely a band aid, it won’t help much, because buried in the bill is ambiguous language that can be used to suppress all small growers. Wipe them out. There is also language that can be used to implement Codex which would be a real prize for big pharma. Stop the whole thing in it’s tracks! Senator Coburn says, It will cost the US over 1.5 billion and not change food safety one iota.

  • Government is the Anti-Midas and always have been. You want food safety? Get government away from it. You want big food producers to get a larger share and for our food to be more GM and less safe? Let government handle it. Time after time after time after friggin’ time we see it.
    DISREGARD THE TITLE OF THE BILL!!! …and read its contents. Like the “healthcare” bill, its not about healthcare but about rewarding big business (while its “marketed” to be against big business).
    The only thing you can be sure of is that as a perversion of King Midas where everything he touched turns to gold, you can be guaranteed that everything the US Government touches will turn to complete an utter Sh*t. Send this bill to the sewage treatment plant where it belongs. Lobbyists love it. Small producers hate it. That should give you a glowing clue.