Food Safety Rules: What Farmers – and their Advocates – Need to Know Now

Reposted from NESAWG

August, 2013 Potluck News

NESAWG is part of a broader team that helps to educate and advocate about sustainable farm and food issues at the national level.  To that end, we bring our northeast regional perspective to the national table.

In the area of food safety, new rules governing food safety need to account for differences among types of farms to be meaningful and effective across the board.  In the northeast, we have a high concentration of IPM and organic farms, and farms serving direct markets like CSAs and farmers markets.  Read below regarding the upcoming rules and what farmers (and consumers) need to know.

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August is crunch time for farmers in the northeast.  Everything needs weeding, harvesting, reseeding and cover-cropping—and all at once.  Who has time to read 1,200+ pages of food safety rules and regulations?  Brian Snyder, Executive Director of the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture, for one.  And it’s a good thing he does.

The time for deciphering and commenting on the Food Safety Modernization Act’s proposed rules is now, especially since the courts are unlikely to allow any further extensions of the November 17 deadline.  Snyder is doing all he can to inform farmers and their advocates of the issues and urge them to take action.  The stakes couldn’t be higher.

 75 Years in the Making

“This is the first major rewrite of food safety legislation in 75 years,” says Snyder.  “Farmers can count on the fact that these will be the rules that they have to abide by for the rest of their lives, and probably even the next generation or two.”

Read the action steps that Snyder suggests all farmers take now!

Of course, agriculture has changed drastically in the last seven decades.  Our safety standards need to adapt to the complexities of our current global food system.  According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 48 million people get sick from food-borne diseases each year.  In this summer’s latest outbreak, at least 418 people in 16 states were sickened by contaminated salad mix.  Our food system is so vast and complicated, Snyder says, “They couldn’t even tell us which country the produce was from until weeks after the outbreak.”

Updating decades-old legislation may help enhance tracking and minimize outbreaks.  The risk is that the rules as proposed would have unintended effects on farms that are not typically found to be the source of this type of widespread contamination— those using sustainable or organic growing methods and  distributing via small and direct markets.

 All Farms Great and Small

The tendency in Washington has always been to create rules that are adapted, in one way or another, for large industry—in this case, massive, conventional farms.  Those rules, when applied to sustainable or organic operations, pose serious threats.

“These regulations will be prohibitive in terms of expense and can put a number of farms and facilities that we work with out of business,” says Snyder.

For example, one rule would require that some farmers conduct weekly tests of each and every well used for irrigating crops.  Another mandates that fields fertilized with manure be left fallow for at least nine months.  In places that have cold winters, like the northeast, Snyder notes that a nine-month hiatus is equivalent to taking a field out of production for a full year.  Rules such as these exceed even the organic standards, which have served as many farmers’ benchmark for decades.  “How many farmers, organic or otherwise, have any idea that this going to be the rule if we don’t get it changed?”

An Exemption for Every Rule?

There is an exception to every rule, and much has been made about the exemptions written into the proposed FSMA regulations.  Many northeast farmers are being lulled into believing that exceptions for smaller farms apply to them.  In reality, cautions Snyder, “Those exemptions have limits that are more variable than they think.”

For example, the FDA’s proposed produce rule exempts any farmer selling less than $25,000 worth of product from compliance with some of the procedures.  A dairy farmer who plants an acre of vegetables to sell at a local market—hoping to clear enough to fix the milking machine—may assume she’s exempt.  However, the FDA doesn’t just count sales of produce toward that $25,000 limit, but everything sold on the farm for either human or animal consumption, including the milk sales that constitute her main income.  For most farms in this situation, Snyder observes, “They are going to be well over $25,000 before they plant their first zucchini.”

Another much-touted exemption is similarly limited: a farm with annual sales under $500,000 is exempt, but only if it earns at least 50% of its income through direct sales in the same state or within 275 miles of that farm.  Misleading information about these exemptions abound.  Snyder believes that the lobbyists who stand to gain if these rules are approved unimpeded are circulating much of it.  “That is the reason why every farmer really needs to pay attention,” he says, “There are trap doors in these exemptions that may not be immediately clear.”

 Farmers: Act Now!

Read Snyder’s suggestions for actions farmers and their advocates can take right now.

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For more ideas, videos and challenges, please join my Facebook Group; Just Food Now.   And also check out more World.edu posts. You also may be interested in the 15-credit Certificate, the 2-year Associate of Sciences degrees or the 4-year B.S. Sustainable Food and Farming major in the University of Massachusetts Stockbridge School of Agriculture.

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