Food safety has been in the news a lot over the past few years, as we have seen increased outbreaks of E. coli, Salmonella, and other food-borne illnesses. Many of these outbreaks have been linked to specific farms or processing facilities, almost all of them of industrial scale. Food-borne illnesses are serious and sometimes cause multiple deaths during a single outbreak.
Some food safety issues are home-based. It is important for consumers to know how to properly store, handle, and cook raw, whole foods. But most of these outbreaks have nothing to do with what home cooks did or did not do, so improvements in food safety need to focus on food production and processing.
Congress recently passed a bill updating food safety laws called the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), partly in reaction to recent outbreaks. The Food and Drug Administration is currently working to implement the new law and is accepting public comments on two pieces of their new regulations.
Clearly, food safety is an important issue and shouldn't be taken lightly. Neither should it treat all producers and processors in the same way. Small family farms cannot afford to the same kinds of technology as large corporate farms, nor can they survive under paperwork burdens larger operators can handle. Short, local supply chains have rarely been linked to large outbreaks of food-borne illnesses and should be treated differently under the new regulations than industrial-scale farming and processing companies.
Unfortunately, a few key provisions of the FSMA designed to shield small farms from unreasonable (and unwarranted) regulations are not reflected in the FDA's regulations. For example, the FDA has listed farmers markets and CSAs as "manufacturing facilities" rather than retail outlets, opening them up to massive new regulations. Clearly, anyone who has attended a farmers market knows it is about buying and selling produce, not processing or manufacturing food.
So what can be done to prevent the new FDA rules from hurting small farmers? Comment now! The comment period for two key pieces of the new rules (the Produce Rule and the Preventative Control Rule) is open until November 15th. The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition has a guide for both consumers and farmers, giving sample talking points and explaining how to submit your comments to the FDA. If you want to support local farmers who stand (very directly, at the farmers markets) behind their product, tell the FDA to recognize the difference between small-scale and industrial agriculture.