Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Food Regulation in Congress - They are at it again!

Senate Bill 510 is coming out of committee and making small farmers like me nervous. I don't grow fruits and vegetables but was hoping to provide some specialty items like grains, flours, figs, and rare beans in the near future. We were also hoping to participate in California's new laws that allow a certain amount of "on-farm" processing for things like olives and jams. But none of that will happen if this type of legislation is passed.

Part of the concern for small farmers relates to the definition of a "facility" that would fall under this new regulation and require registration and inspection. Its important to note that under current FDA regulations a "farm" is not a "facility". S510 uses current FDA regulations to define a "facility" - so farmers should not worry - right? Well, there are details. According to the regulations:

A farm can pack or hold food as long as all that food is grown, raised, or consumed on that farm. If a farmer lets a neighbor store lettace in his walk-in cooler then his farm is no longer a farm and becomes a "facility".

A farm can process food provided that food is consumed on that farm. So a farm can mix, mill, grind, cook, or package food as long as that food is consumed on the farm. If I want to provide value added products for sale like ground flour or jam the farm becomes a "facility".

At a very high level (and leaving out things like the creation of grants, provisions for Homeland Security, and registration of inspection agents) the bill does the following:

  • Directs the FDA to create science based minimum standards for the safe production and harvesting of fruits and vegetables that are raw agricultural commodities. It does not spell out the standards - the FDA gets to define those in the future. Also describes inspection and enforcement of these standards. Note: If "farms" are not "facilities" and "facilities" are the only places subject to this regulation then why is the FDA creating standards for production and harvesting which are clearly spelled out as "farm activities"?
  • Directs the FDA to create minimum standards related to soil amendments, animal encroachment, and water. Again these are not spelled out - the FDA gets to define them in the future. These are clearly "farm" activities so again one must ask why its mentioned in regulations regarding "facilities"? What happens when the FDA creates a standard for soil amendment that a farmer does not want to perform - like applying an additive or sterilization technique they don't agree with? What if the FDA requires strict separation of vegetable farms and animal farms? Many farmers believe, as I do, that diverse farms that raise both veggies and animals are more sustainable, environmentally friendly, and produce healthier food. The FDA could make that illegal in one bureaucratic swoop.
  • Directs the FDA to provide for variances for producers, States, and foreign countries. A single farm must go through the process and expense of getting a variance. Yet China can get a variance for their whole country!
  • Establishes the right of the FDA to collect fees but does not establish the types of fees nor the amounts of the fees. All of that is left to the FDA. There is, however, a limit on the total amount of fees they can collect in a year (measured in the millions of dollars).
  • Requires the FDA to provide a search engine on its internet site. Where did that come from??? I guess its a payoff to Google.
I object to regulation when I feel its unnecessary and especially when I feel it will cause more harm than good. These regulations do nothing to solve the real problems surrounding food safety. But there is another reason I object to this bill - the practices and processes that will most likely be defined as "minimum standards" by the FDA will be those of commercial agriculture. This is not just big bros looking over my shoulder. He will be forcing us to follow practices I find harmful to animals, damaging to the environment, and unhealthy to the people who consume our farm products.

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