Thursday, June 20, 2013

California AB 224 - First Death Knell for CSA's

Supposedly this legislation is being proposed because the California Department of Environmental Health has threatened to regulate CSAs (Community Supported Agriculture) as Retail Food Establishments.  Reading their own regulations - California Retail Food Code - I seriously doubt they would be successful but they could try and cause a lot of people a lot of headaches and legal costs.  The regulations have a clear exemption for farmers making direct sales.  However the threat was enough that some local food activists got together with a few elected officials and started drafting legislation to regulate CSAs.

On the surface the initial regulations are not onerous - the dangerous part is that they grant the authority for Environmental Health to regulate CSAs at all.  Once that power is granted the actual regulations can be changed without elected official involvement.  And regulations - as we all know - always get more strict, not less.

The summary of AB 224 in it's current form (it is still changing as the legislation is going through the Capital) is as follows:
  • CSAs will need to register with Environmental Health (EH) and pay an annual $100 fee. 
  • Classify themselves as either single farm or multiple farm with EH.
  • Every CSA will be required to use the agricultural practices defined and published by the Environmental Health Department. 
  • A CSA that brings together produce from multiple farms must declare to EH which farms will be included in the next year and they are not allowed to deliver produce from farms excluded from that list. 
  • CSAs will be required to charge their customers on a pre-payment basis.
  • CSAs will need to comply with the labeling and container standards developed by EH including putting the name and address of the farm on the delivery box, maintaining the boxes in a clean condition, providing a printed list in the box or electronically of the farm of origin of each item in the box, and maintain records as to the contents and origins of each box.
Paperwork, fees, and useless regulation.  How many of you enrolled in a CSA don't know which farm it is coming from?

It is just a bad idea to let EH regulate CSAs.  But even beyond that I think there could be further unintended consequences.

  • AB 224 will require a producer to use the agricultural practices defined and published by the Environmental Health Department.  Yet we have not seen these published practices so as to ascertain whether they would add substantial costs to a small farm operation.  I am sure some, if not all, of the Food Safety Modernization Act's regulations are going to be incorporated by EH in their "published agricultural practices".  Without exclusion for small farms this effectively could place small farms back under the Food Safety Modernization Act's regulations.
  • There are many different agricultural practices in use in California - some as new and innovative (and environmentally beneficial) as "organic" was 40 years ago.  The Environmental Health Department is not an agriculturally savvy department and I find it chilling to think their sterile approach to food safety time get applied to agriculture.
  • EH should not be dictating how CSA financial transactions are conducted.  Pre-payment is a ridiculous requirement that has nothing to do with food safety.
Personally I think food distributors are behind this push to regulation.  The CSAs are cutting into their market and they don't like it.  But I don't think these large corporations should dictate how a family gets it's vegetables!

I encourage those of you who enjoy the CSA model to write your elected officials and tell them to just kill AB 224 and leave CSAs, and other farm direct models, alone!

Update:  This post was written as the Community Alliance of Family Farmers and other farm organizations were providing comments to the draft regulations.  While the final regulations changed the registration and interaction to be with the CA Dept of Food and Ag instead of EH there are still requirements to meet EH standards for Ag.  I have not seen those published yet (although I have not looked either).  

I believe strongly it was a bad idea for CSAs to accept this level of regulation merely on the threat of being regulated as a Retail Food Establishment.  Particularly when EH legislation expressly forbids EH to regulate direct farm sales.  I think the CSAs were tricked into accepting this based on a non-existent threat.


Anonymous said...

Very disturbing! It does sound like an attempt to throw up roadblocks. I can't see how it will make the food safer. The whole point of CSAs is that people can get to know the farmers who grows their food.

I've never had one problem with food from CSA and I've been buying this way for ten years. This bill sounds like a solution in search of a problem.

Unknown said...

I hate to see this kind of misinformation on the internet. Read the bill before commenting on it. It provides farmers running a CSA a way to AVOID regulation by Environmental Health by instead registering with the CA Dept of Food and Agriculture. While no one wants regulation after 25 years of no regulation, food safety mania leaves us with no choice.