As we move into the winter, farmers and consumers alike need go to the computer keyboard to get involved in an issue with great implications for everyone—food safety.

Let’s start with the obvious. We all want to eat delicious, affordable, healthy, and safe food. But right now, proposed new food safety rules put such basic expectations at risk. In December of 2010, when Congress finalized a contentious process of overhauling the food safety laws, it addressed several aspects of food safety and, quite frankly, ignored some other important ones, such as pesticide residues, GMOs, excessive antibiotic use, and food additives. Because of the increasing number of food-related disease outbreaks in recent years, what Congress did focus on in the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) was microbial contamination of food.

As the FSMA debates gained steam in Congress in 2008, sustainable agriculture farmers around the nation became alarmed by some of the early congressional food safety proposals and asked the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) to get involved. Over the next two years, NSAC led negotiations for many provisions recognizing different contamination risks from different kinds of production and processing operations and seeking appropriate provisions for different sizes and kinds of farms. Since, with few exceptions, most recent large food safety problems have resulted from industrial-scale production, processing, and distribution, NSAC and others persuaded Congress to create scale-appropriate remedies, such as training rather than expensive and inapplicable Hazard Analysis Critical Control Points (HACCP) plans for small produce farms.

After FSMA passed, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) began the process of implementing the law by drafting rules, the first of which were released this summer. Certain provisions in two draft rules—the Produce Rule and the Preventive Controls Rule—excessively regulate small fresh market produce farmers and impair their ability to market fresh produce. A few examples of the problems in the rules, as currently drafted:

  • The rules include manure and compost application restrictions that would make it nearly impossible for farmers to use these natural fertilizers, pushing farmers to use chemical fertilizers instead of natural ones. These restrictions directly conflict with National Organic Program (USDA) certification provisions on manure treatment. 
  • The rules would require excessive water testing on farms, where farmers use water from streams and lakes. Farmers would be required to pay for weekly water tests regardless of risk or cost.
  • Local food systems are at risk. Although Congress instructed the FDA to not allow their implementation of FSMA to undermine local food systems, the rules can be interpreted to consider farmers’ markets, roadside stands, and community-supported agriculture programs “manufacturing facilities” subject to additional regulation. CSAs that sell produce from other farms would be subjected to that higher level of regulation.
  • Enforcement of FSMA rules could be grossly unfair. The FDA has given itself broad authority to revoke small farmers’ protections without any proof of a public health threat.
  • The rules would be expensive for many farms. Even the FDA estimates that the rules could cost some farmers over half of their profits, which could keep beginning farmers from entering farming. 
  • Consumers would lose access to important sources of healthy food. Because the rules as drafted would put many farmers out of business and discourage others from entering farming, options to purchase local, healthy food would diminish. Local food distributors like food hubs could close, and new food businesses would not launch. 
  • The rules could harm wildlife and degrade our soil and water. They could force farmers to halt safe practices that protect our natural resources and wildlife. 

But there’s good news! These are still draft rules. The FDA is seeking public comments on them until November 15. This is an important time for people who care about how and where their food is grown to stand up for their local farmers and defend their ability to farm against regulatory over-reach. We all want food safety, but we don’t want to destroy the vibrant local and sustainable farming communities we’ve worked so hard to build because we allowed FDA to implement poorly-designed regulations. 

Because the rules are complex, sustainable agriculture advocates are organizing meetings in the Madison and Milwaukee areas to help consumers and farmers submit comments. 

Your comments really do matter

Many times over the years, thoughtful public comments from involved citizens have prompted agencies to change misguided rules and regulations that would have harmed sustainable agriculture. Help this be one more time and join the efforts by submitting your comments on-line or by mail. 

It is crucial that farmers and people who care about how and where their food is grown comment on the draft rules by the November 15 deadline.

For more information, please visit sustainableagriculture.net/fsma/ or www.michaelfieldsaginst.org/