Sunday, November 29, 2009

Food bill frightens farmers

Proposed legislation holds small growers to difficult standards

By ERIN MILLS
The East Oregonian

Small farmers and local food activists are up in arms about the Food Safety Modernization Act, the U.S. Senate's plan to improve food safety.

The bill, S510, is a rewrite of the nation's food safety rules. It would expand federal regulation of food production facilities, including small farms.

One point of contention for small farmers is the bill's requirement that all food production facilities, no matter how small, register with the federal government and complete a hazard analysis.

"It will mean that small producers that sell direct to consumers will have to go through the same regulations as Smith Foods," said Andrea Malmberg, the director of Oregon Rural Action, a group that supports local foods. "It's a one-size-fits-all regulatory mechanism for food facilities."

The food safety overhaul comes in the wake of national food scares, such as the peanut-related salmonella outbreak last spring that killed nine people. But the tainted products came from large processing facilities, Malmberg said, not small producers.

Gus Wahner, a Stanfield farmer, grows vegetables for markets in Pendleton and Hermiston. He said the bill's regulations might make it impossible for him to do business. It's not just the hazard plan, he said, it's also new Food and Drug Administration guidelines on how to grow crops.

The bill declares that the FDA will establish "science-based minimum standards for the safe production and harvesting of...raw agricultural commodities."

To satisfy those standards, the FDA may require growers to prove they are monitoring insect and wildlife activity in their fields, among other rules.

Under the Senate bill, growers will also be subject to more federal inspections, something which Wahner said he could not afford. He said he already opted out of the state's organic certification program because it required too much time and paperwork.

"They want to put all these regulations on you, but they don't have any idea how much it's going to cost," Wahner said.

Wahner said he was unsure about all the implications of the bill, a concern that was echoed by others in the local foods community. The bill makes reference to a number of new regulations of food "facilities," for example, but doesn't describe what a facility is.

Karen Wagner, the Pendleton Farmer's Market board president, said the bill's rules could have a chilling effect on growers. The profit margins on small and organic operations are thin enough as it is, she said.

"And (the rules) don't address the issues at hand - why people are getting sick," she said.
Much of the bill's regulations concern traceability - the need to know where contaminated food came from. But if a person gets sick from food bought at the farmer's market, she said, traceability is not as issue.

"You go to that farmer and say, 'You made me sick,' and you go to public health and they are shut down," she said.

Wagner pointed out that when people got sick from tainted spinach, it was difficult to trace the source because the produce came from hundreds of different farms and was packaged at a distant location.

"In essence, the extra paperwork does not protect the public," she said. "What protects the public is safe handling of our food."

Julie Edwards, communications director for Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) said the bill addresses the problem of food-related illnesses and has provisions to protect small growers from undue regulation.

"It's important to keep in mind why it was needed," she said.

Every year, she pointed out, there are millions of cases of food-borne illnesses. Last year, there were 325,000 hospitalizations and 5,000 deaths from tainted food. And it's not just a public health issue, she said - growers suffer when a food item becomes untouchable in the marketplace.

Merkley was among those who insisted the bill direct the FDA to be flexible for small farmers, she said. For example, one potential rule for large growers could be to have handwashing stations in the field. That requirement is obviously unnecessary when your field is right next to your house, she said.

"As long as their business is direct to consumer, they will benefit from that flexibility," she said.

Edwards said having growers keep a hazard plan was a simple process of keeping a list of guidelines. The FDA would help growers with that process, she added.

After the bill unanimously passed the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions committee, the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition issued a letter to senators that praised changes in the bill related to organic and small-scale farming. However, it wrote, the bill still has problems.

"The chief flaw relates to the very basic issue of how many farms are presumed to be regulated under the terms of the bill, at what cost, and with what incremental gain to food safety, if any," the NSAC wrote.

Many small-foods activists are happier with the House's food safety bill, the Food Safety Enhancement Act of 2009, which it passed in July.

The House bill exempts some farms that sell food directly to consumers from registration as "facilities" and small farms from traceability requirements.

Janet Marie, the manager of the La Grande Farmer's Market, is among those who have been raising awareness about the two bills for the past several months. She praised Senator Merkley for his additions to the Senate bill, but said he didn't go quite far enough. She would like to see an amendment that exempts small growers from many of the bills requirements, including the hazard plan, she said.

"It's kind of a tiny point in a big bill, but we think it's extremely important for direct market farmers," she said.

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