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editorial

Food safety: a tale of regulatory abuse


October 23, 2013

For most of the last 10,000 years people have farmed in a challenging give-and-take dance with Mother Nature. Over time, farmers sought to change the dance, to bend nature to produce more (quantity) and to create better (quality) results—from animal husbandry to plant biology to mechanization that made farm work easier. In the 20th century, industrial farming turned to chemistry—synthetic fertilizers and pesticides—and now genetic engineering to boost production. U.S. farm policies were developed, ostensibly, to regulate on behalf of consumer health and safety, and to support farmers to produce commodity crops to feed a hungry nation and world. Where once farming was only about the relationship between the farmer and his land, today we have an agricultural system dominated by a relatively small number of agribusiness corporations, with government as a key player, too.

Now comes the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) passed by the U.S. Congress in December 2010. The federal agency charged with writing the regulations to implement this law, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), is nearing the end of its rule-making process; the window for the public to comment on the rules closes on November 15.

Many farmers with small- to medium-sized family farms are worried. So are organizations like FarmAid and the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (sustainableagriculture.net/fsma), which are calling for the FDA to scrap its proposed rule on farm standards for produce growers and its preventative control requirements for food facilities and to start the rule-writing process over again.

While it is touted as a law that will make our food safer, even the U.S. Department of Agriculture has concluded there is no evidence the FSMA will prevent food-borne diseases.

Furthermore, these rules would place costly regulatory burdens on small farm and food businesses that already struggle to achieve a narrow profit margin. Figures from 2011 show the average net farm income nationally is just 10% of sales. Meanwhile, the FDA’s own numbers project that the typical small produce farm that earns less than $250,000 in sales (the very farmers we see when we visit local farmers’ markets) will spend 6% of its revenue to comply with proposed on-farm regulations. (You do the math. The federal government would end up with half of the farmer’s profits.)