Monday, October 7, 2013

At the Risk of Sounding Like Chicken Little

The sky may indeed be falling!

Is anyone paying attention?

The food system in the country is in for some big, really big, changes and I don’t think anyone is real concerned. Have you ever even heard of the Food Safety Modernization Act? The FSMA represents the absolute biggest changes in food safety issues in this country since the 1930's. It was signed into law by President Obama in January of 2011. This is supposed to protect us from the spread of E coli, Mad Cow disease, food poisoning and the like by allowing the FDA to regulate every facet of food production.

Now, I am all for safe food.  Absolutely!  I want to know that the food I buy is safe for us to eat.  I want our customers to know the food they buy from us is safe to eat.  But, one more piece of legislation is not going to keep any of us from getting sick. No way! And these proposals are fraught with problems.

Just a note here, many facilities are already under some sort of inspection.  In Virginia, our Department of Agriculture inspects Farmers' Markets and farms that utilize their kitchens for value-added products.  It is possible to sell without inspection, but those products must be labelled in such a way that the consumer knows that the producer is not under inspection.

Since this project has not been fully funded, maybe the whole government shutdown is a good thing.  Maybe it will get lost in the shuffle if Congress ever goes back to work. But, seriously...this needs attention...a lot of attention.

I promise…this is not a political post.  But, the legislation has been passed and is in the process of being implemented and it will affect every single one of us.  At least, those of us who eat. (and I'm pretty sure that's everyone)  It will affect Farmers’ Markets and CSA’s, Pick-your-owns and Food Hubs, grocery stores and the like…  If food is being produced and/or processed…this Act will have an effect on the way that is done. Decisions about production will no longer be made by the producers but the officials in charge of the program. It’s pretty much a “one-size-fits-all” kind of program.  All producers will be made to follow all the same rules, regardless of size or farming practice.

I have been watching this subject for quite some time.  Because…we produce and process food here on the hill…and well, I admit it, food is my life. While I don’t think of myself as an alarmist, this one has me more than a little concerned. So, I hope you’ll read on, get educated and take action.  Please take action before November 15, 2013.

In January 2013, the FDA released its 547 page document regarding the implementation of the Food Modernization Safety Act. As I stated before, the Food Modernization Safety Act was signed into law on January 4, 2011---so I am not jumping at shadows here.  This is going to happen…we just don’t know when, or exactly how. Presently, the FDA is open to comments…but only until November 15, 2013.

I must admit, when I saw the mammoth document, I totally flipped out.  I talked to a number of folks in the food-production community; I wrote emails to groups I thought would have further information.  I contacted our Representative in Congress. Nobody seemed too concerned.  Oh, and the Representative…despite the fact that he is the VICE CHAIR of the House Committee on Agriculture…never even responded to my email.

 Surely I was overreacting.

 Come on, this won’t affect the Farmers’ Market vendors!

There is an exemption for those who produce under $25,000 annually. I would like to point out that there are many Farmers’ Market vendors who produce MORE than $25,000 annually.  (apparently, that fact escaped a great number of folks) Any farm making $25,001 to $250,000 annually will have 4 years to comply with the rules...ALL the rules. Farms making $250,001 to $500,000 have three years.  Bigger operations must comply immediately. The rules include massive amounts of record keeping, labeling and repetitive water testing among other things. Farms will be subject to inspection at any time. The rules make it possible to consider even the small farms “manufacturing facilities”.

Now that time is getting short, a lot of folks are getting concerned about this topic.  My newsfeed is full of conversation about the topic.

All the emphasis on LOCAL, sustainable, small farms of late will do nothing to protect these same farms from having to comply with an overwhelming of expensive requirements.  The whole KNOW YOUR FARMER, KNOW YOUR FOOD (a USDA program) will become meaningless if small farms are made to comply with the regulations.  It may mean the end for a great number of small farms. The cost of compliance will be prohibitive to new operations starting and may actually mean that there will be LESS choices when it comes to food.

Here is a list of what is seen to be wrong with the proposed rules:
Top 10 Problems with FSMA for Farmers and Local Food Businesses
  1. They’re too expensive.
    The rules could cost farmers over half of their profits and will keep beginners from starting to farm.
  2. They treat farmers unfairly.
    FDA is claiming broad authority to revoke small farmers’ protections without any proof of a public health threat.
  3. They will reduce access to fresh, healthy food.
    Local food distributors like food hubs could close, and new food businesses will not launch.
  4. They make it harder for farms to diversify.
    Grain, dairy, and livestock farmers could be denied access to emerging local food markets.
  5. They will over-regulate local food.
    The rules could consider farmers markets, roadside stands, and community-supported agriculture programs “manufacturing facilities” subject to additional regulation.
  6. They treat pickles like a dangerous substance.
    The rules fail to protect a host of low-risk processing activities done by smaller farms and processors.
  7. They make it nearly impossible to use natural fertilizers like manure and compost.
    Farmers will be pushed to use chemicals instead of natural fertilizers.
  8. They require excessive water testing on farms.
    Farmers using water from streams and lakes will be required to pay for weekly water tests regardless of risk or cost.
  9. They could harm wildlife and degrade our soil and water.
    The rules could force farmers to halt safe practices that protect our natural resources and wildlife.
  10. Bonus: there’s at least one good thing about the rules.
    The rules take an ‘integrated’, not a ‘commodity-specific’ approach – meaning farmers won’t face over 30 separate rules for each kind of fresh produce they grow. FDA needs to keep this good decision in the final rules!

The new rules are repetitive, redundant, and in some cases, at odds with the current approved practices.  They have the potential to be incredibly costly and time-consuming.  The changes listed below are seen to be the most critical.
·    Allow farmers to use sustainable farming practices, including those already allowed and encouraged by existing federal organic standards and conservation programs. Specifically, FDA must not exceed the strict standards for the use of manure and compost used in certified organic production and regulated by the National Organic Program.
·    Ensure that diversified and innovative farms, particularly those pioneering models for increased access to healthy, local foods, continue to grow and thrive without being stifled. Specifically, FDA needs to clarify two key definitions: first, as Congress required, FDA must affirm that farmers markets, CSAs, roadside stands, and other direct-to-consumer vendors fall under the definition of a “retail food establishment” and are therefore not facilities subject to additional regulation. Second, FDA should adopt at least the $1,000,000 threshold for a very small business and base it on the value of ‘regulated product,’ not ‘all food,’ to ensure smaller farms and businesses (like food hubs) fall under the scale-appropriate requirements and aren’t subject to high cost, industrial-scale regulation.
·    Provide options that treat family farms fairly, with due process and without excessive costs. Specifically, FDA must clearly define the “material conditions” that lead to a withdrawal of a farmer’s protected status in scientifically measurable terms. FDA must also outline a clear, fair, process for justifying the withdrawal of a farmer’s protected status and for how a farmer can regain that status.

So, what to do?

Please read this.

If you’re concerned about maintaining your food choices, then, by all means, email the FDA. 

If you want more information, contact ME...and I'll point you in the right direction.

…and THANK YOU! 

Thanks for taking the time to read…to understand…and to act.

If enough folks take action…maybe the FDA will produce a second draft for public consideration. 

...and then the sky might not be falling after all.

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