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Food Safety from the Ground Up

Food Safety, from the Ground Up

by Russell Libby, Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association

For decades, farmers have been encouraged to either get big so they can achieve the economies of scale needed to compete in national and international commodity markets, or to diversify, add value to their products, and build connections with their customers to survive in so-called specialty markets. The latest U.S. Census of Agriculture only confirms that division, with the so-called “farmers in the middle” shrinking in numbers while very big farms and very small farms increased.

Now the entire strategy that most of us have built our farms and marketing approaches around is being called into question. Congress, the Food and Drug Administration, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture are all considering food safety approaches that will make it harder for small, diversified, and organic farmers to build viable businesses. And, of course, the irony is that it’s all happening because of a series of national and international food safety scandals that were caused by businesses that supposedly already were operating under existing food safety laws.

You’ll all remember at least some of the incidents: bagged spinach and salad greens in the fall of 2006; peanut butter in early 2009; Nestle’s Toll House Cookie dough in the summer of 2009; almost continuous recalls of ground beef. The incidents go back still further: Odwalla Apple Juice, a decade ago; oh yes, and did I mention almost continuous recalls of ground beef from the big beef processing plants?

Our Federal food safety laws were essentially written almost a century ago, and are badly in need of updating. Farmers want to produce safe food. So where’s the problem? It’s all in the definitions.

In 2002, Congress passed the “Food Bioterrorism Act of 2002.” The next year, the Food and Drug Administration came out with the rules to put it into effect. Somewhere there — probably while we were marveling at the idea that eating food from local farmers could be connected in any way with terrorism — we missed some major policy decisions. Farms are exempt — but only if you consider a farm to stop at the moment that the plant is harvested from the ground. All the things that happen on my farm, and yours, to make the product ready for market — washing, putting it into a package, putting a label on the package that proudly advertises that this food is from your farm and this is who you are — are considered manufacturing. And then we fall into a loop where the only way to not be under FDA regulation, and jurisdiction, is to sell more than half the food directly to individual consumers.

For some of us, that works out fine. Farmers’ markets — exempt. CSA’s — exempt also. Farmstands — exempt. But if you want to supply the chef at the café in town, or the local grocery — those sales could make you into a regulated facility. If the majority of your sales involve those kinds of small wholesale transactions that many of us depend on as a core part of our business, then you become a “facility.”

A “facility” is, in simple English, a place where the processing or manufacturing of food takes place. If you think of a factory that buys ingredients from hundreds of farms by way of several different supply chains, and turns that into processed food, that is obviously a facility. But under the definitions used by Congress and FDA, so is a maple syrup producer who lives in a small rural community and sells more than half the farm’s syrup at the local grocery store.

These definitions don’t reflect the reality of our farms. To us, all the aspects of a farm — growing, getting ready for market, taking food to markets that might be made up of individuals we know, chefs we’ve worked with for decades who ask us to grow special items for them, the store where our brand is an important asset for the retailer as well as us — are part of a unified whole. But the definitions over-simplify our complex reality. And as we become, in definition, more than farms, we are treated as potential contamination points that need to take more and more steps to prove that our food is good to eat.

That’s where the new Federal Legislation is taking us as well. HR 2749, the House legislation, and S. 510, the Senate’s working equivalent, continue to focus on the term “facility” as the key element of whether you will be regulated or not. But, by treating activities that happen directly on individual farms as if they are happening in separate processing plants, they are bringing farmers into a more complex world.

HR 2749 passed the House in July. If its provisions hold, a facility would be required to: register with FDA; pay a $500 annual fee; develop a food safety plan; create a food defense plan — which basically assumes that every business in the country is now a target for either domestic or international terrorists; and develop a traceability system for the food, or food products, it sells.

I don’t know about you, but some of that isn’t going to happen on my very small farm. In particular, I am not ever going to create a food defense plan and pretend that I am worried that every single person who visits Three Sisters Farm is here to contaminate the nation’s food supply. S. 510, the Senate bill, includes many similar provisions, but not the fee system.

On parallel tracks, FDA has issued draft guidance documents for melons, tomatoes, and leafy greens. If you grow any or all three of the crops, you’re expected to produce in accordance with the 150 single-spaced pages of instructions. And USDA has proposed a national Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement that would impose a system designed by very large produce farms in California and Arizona on almost any greens grower who wants to sell into the wholesale markets.

Whether legislation passes Congress or not, whether FDA modifies and simplifies the produce guidelines or not, and whether or not the Marketing Agreement passes and is implemented, the landscape has changed.

It’s up to all of us to begin, to change the terms of the discussion so that we can continue to grow the kinds of food that people in our communities across the country want.

Here are some first steps we can all take:

  • Talk with our buyers about how good farming systems help to produce safe food. We walk the fields. We harvest the crops. We raise the animals. We follow them all the way to the door.
  • Make sure we do a good job. Keep fresh manure away from crops that will be harvested within 90 to 120 days from planting, depending on the type of crop. Use clean water to wash and to irrigate.
  • Build soil fertility, and rely on that to produce good crops.
  • Keep good records of what we’re doing on our farms, where we buy our inputs, where we sell.
  • Talk with other farmers about how to do a good job.
  • Integrate diversity into our farms — birds and bats are major allies in insect control; windbreaks help with pollinators.

Sterility is not the answer. We don’t need sterile fields producing sterile food.

Finally, if you’re feeling confident, invite people out to see what you’re doing, and how it can make a difference. Most Congressional staff never see the kinds of farms we’re all operating — but they’re writing the legislation that affects us.

If you want to be engaged, some groups helping to coordinate political discussion at the national level include:

National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition: www.sustainableagriculture.net

National Organic Coalition: www.nationalorganiccoalition.org

My organization, the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, has been deeply involved in these discussions this year because we think it’s critical to the future of the more local, more organic food system we’ve worked towards for decades now. We’re trying to work at two levels: first, to make sure policymakers, whether in Congress or agencies, are aware of the potential impact of their actions; second, to work directly with farmers and small processors to make sure as many as possible have access to basic food safety training, to help farmers and processors to develop food safety plans that are appropriate to their scale and their markets, and finally, if necessary, to provide a system to verify that farmers are following those plans, which is increasingly needed for access to larger markets.

You can find more about our work and thoughts on these topics at:

Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association: www.mofga.org, and search for “Food safety.”

Russell Libby is the Executive Director (2009) of the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, based in Unity, Maine.