Dear Editor,

Recently a few media outlets reported on a study warning Americans about the dangers of consuming produce grown by small-scale farmers. Very quickly, however, the study was retracted because its authors failed to comply with basic ethical requirements. Unfortunately, the ethical issue was just one of the many flaws with the study, and the retraction does not solve the problem.

As background, our organization, Farm and Ranch Freedom Alliance, was one of the groups instrumental in getting the Tester Amendment to the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), exempting small, direct-marketing farmers from many of the FSMA rules.Congress adopted these exemptions because the data showed that the overwhelming majority of food safety issues arise from the centralized, consolidated industrial food system. Few, if any, outbreaks have been traced to the small farms exempted from the FSMA rules, whether before or after FSMA was enacted.

Yet despite that track record of safety, some academics and agency bureaucrats remain biased against small farms.  In this recent incident, a professor in the School of Hotel Management and Hospitality at University of Houston surveyed 70 people who attended a Texas workshop on produce growing in the summer of 2019. Over a year later, the professor published the results of the survey accompanied by a press release written in such alarming terms that it led media to ask if this could be the end of the Tester exemptions because of the supposed risks being created by small farms.

Yet the study didn’t even accurately state what the Tester exemption is. Instead, it provided a literally nonsensical definition of small farm  saying “Small growers earn ≤$25,000 in annual sales over a 3-year period and have an average food sale of less than $500,000.”  

The disregard for accuracy was also evident in the numerous conclusions made that were in no way supported by the actual data collected in the survey.

Let’s start with who was surveyed. Reports from attendees in past years of this workshop indicate that most attendees are backyard gardeners who occasionally sell their excess produce. The survey results confirmed that, with almost three-quarters of respondents stating that they only sell at a farmers’ market less than once a month on average. This is not a population that reflects the majority of small farmers who sell food to their local communities.

Moreover, the survey questions were so broadly written as to be effectively meaningless in terms of identifying true food safety risks. For example, the survey asked if the farmer provided bathroom facilities for workers near the field or packing area – but failed to ask if the farmer had any workers who were not family members. With most of those surveyed saying they had 5 or fewer workers, it’s a safe bet that the majority had only family members working on the farm, or perhaps one or two outside workers who were allowed to use the farmhouse facilities. Yet the study and the press release trumpeted the risks, falsely leading the reader to imagine that people might be using the fields as toilets.

Similarly, the survey asked, “Do you have any domestic animals in your farm?” which would include a housecat, pet dog, or recreational horse. Yet from that one question, the study claimed that more than half of respondents are growing produce that must be unsafe due to the presence of domestic animals.  

Consider just one more of the numerous gaps in logic. The study raised alarm that 87 percent of the respondents didn’t test their irrigation water. But the survey failed to ask about the source of the water. Many backyard gardeners and hobbyists — typical of the people surveyed in this case — use public water supplies that are already tested far more often and rigorously than FSMA requires of any size farm.   

The fault lies not only with the professor who (1) did research without following the basic ethical requirements of her university, and (2) wrote unfounded conclusions that could not logically be made from her research. It also lies with the Texas Department of Agriculture (TDA). Not only did the TDA fund this research, but the head of its produce safety division was a co-author on the study. 

Why? The answer may be an attempt by TDA to justify its unnecessary and intrusive inspections of small farms. In Texas, as in many states, the state agriculture agency has been delegated authority to implement FSMA. TDA’s rules go well beyond those set out by the FDA, including demanding that exempt farms undergo a “pre-assessment review” and biennial verification that they are, in fact, exempt. And the agency claims authority to do on-farm inspections of exempt farms, with the ability to assess steep fines that balloon exponentially each day a farmer refuses inspection.

That’s why, in late 2019, the Farm and Ranch Freedom Alliance filed a lawsuit against TDA to stop this overreach.  But judging from this irresponsible study, the TDA continues to be unwilling to recognize what Congress acknowledged with the Tester Amendment: the high level of safety provided by small-scale growers selling direct to their local communities. It is deeply troubling that the agency spent taxpayer dollars on a study that violated basic ethics requirements and spuriously attacked growers in our state.

— Judith McGeary
Farm and Ranch Freedom Alliance

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