Thursday, March 19, 2009

Food Safety Modernization Act of 2009 - A Small Farm Perspective

Food Safety Modernization Act of 2009

I’ve been trying to work my way through this bill for a few days now. Things keep getting in the way (the weather has been great, and there is a lot to do), but this is important, and people keep asking, so here are some of my thoughts.

On the whole, consolidating the various inspection and monitoring agencies is probably a good idea. That is a big piece of this bill, and it means nothing to me. There are some bits written into the directives and implementation parts of the bill that have the potential to impact small farms, farmers markets, CSA’s and other small scale local food efforts in a very negative way. I’ll detail a couple things below. I don’t think this is a Monsanto (or any other big corporation) conspiracy. However, their interests tend to get better representation in legislation and bureaucratic implementation because they have more “clout”. It is important that the voice of the small producer and their customers get heard.

PROGRAM ELEMENTS.—In carrying out the program, the Administrator shall—(1) adopt and implement a national system for the registration of food establishments and foreign food establishments, as provided in section 202 of this Act; (2) adopt and implement a national system for regular unannounced inspection of food establishments; (3) require and enforce the adoption of preventive process controls in food establishments, based on the best available scientific and public health considerations and best available technologies;

There is a clause in the bill that exempts food production establishments from this registration. A “Food Production Facility” is defined as follows:

(14) FOOD PRODUCTION FACILITY.—The term ‘‘food production facility’’ means any farm, ranch, orchard, vineyard, aquaculture facility, or confined animal-feeding operation.

“Food Establishment” is defined as a Processing Facility. And “Process” is defined as follows:

(19) PROCESS.—The term ‘‘process’’ or ‘‘processing’’ means the commercial slaughter, packing, preparation, or manufacture of food.

All food establishments are required to register and to be subject to random inspection based on their classification ( a category 1 being inspected the most often and so on through category 5. Here is one of the places that the small farmer could get into all kinds of trouble. Most small farms are also food processors. On my farm, for example we harvest and package various kinds of salad greens. That would put us in the Category 3 Food Establishment. That would require that I build a separate “processing” facility to package my salad greens. That facility would have to meet certification requirements from the state and now federal inspectors as well as OSHA etc. I would also be subject to at least monthly inspections, and a mountain of record keeping. I sell to about 150 people a week, all of whom know me, my farm, my methods. My produce doesn’t really enter the conventional food system. Yet I would have to meet all these requirements (I’m sure there are more.) A giant salad greens farm in California who cuts and sells their lettuce to a processing facility would be exempt from these requirements. Everything I do on my farm meets the requirement of at least a Category 5 Food Establishment and subjects me to these requirements. Most large producers would be exempted.


(a) IN GENERAL.—The Administrator, in order to protect the public health, shall establish a national traceability system that enables the Administrator to retrieve the history, use, and location of an article of food through all stages of its production, processing, and distribution. (b) APPLICABILITY.—Traceability requirements under this section shall apply to food from food production facilities, food establishments, and foreign food establishments.

This is another requirement of the bill that impacts small producers more than large producers. It gives the force of Federal Law to NAIS and goes on to require a similar system for all types of food. I suppose there will be a NTIS (National Tomato Identification System) and a NLIS (for lettuce) and… I don’t know how it will work, but, as we have seen with the NAIS, small, diversified producers are disproportionately impacted by the cost and paperwork burden of this kind of a system. There are also numerous reports and studies showing that traceability is about as effective at preventing food related outbreaks as closing the barn door after the horses have run off is at keeping the horses in the barn. All this kind of system does is let the blame and the penalties run downhill to the smallest producer.

I’m sure we are all in favor of safe food and government efficiency. Both of those things are things I support. I’m not opposed to some level of government inspection or oversight, but I want it to be appropriate to the processes I use and the level of threat my production methods pose to the general health of the nation. Contact your congress people and voice your opinion. We can have a safe, as well as a diverse, food system if they act rationally rather than legislate out of fear.


Jan Steinman said...

I hear you, Alan!

It is really getting quite ridiculous. We were just slapped with a $300 fine for beginning work on a woodshed without a building permit -- and I only have about $200 into the damn thing!

I can apparently cut the 8'x32' structure into pieces that are no larger than 10 square metres (107 sqft). (sarcasm mode)This will surely increase the public safety of the structure... Yea, that's a good thing to motivate people to do.(/sarcasm mode)

The only thing I can assuage you, the thing I keep telling myself, is that this sort of regulatory behaviour is not sustainable, and we simply have to wait for it to die of energy starvation.

The US Federal Government and a good number of the states are near insolvency. How much do you wanna bet that so-called "public health and safety" money will be among the first to be cut?

HT Odum and later energy descent scientists (notably, David Holmgren) teach that complexity is a direct function of energy, and that includes regulatory complexity.

I wouldn't recommend entering a career in building inspection or livestock inspection!

As for what you or I should do about it: civil disobedience while waiting it out. Get off the cash economy as much as possible! Barter for your livestock. If an inspector comes, they're just pets, and without cash receipts, they can't claim otherwise.

One cannot control what one cannot measure. If you are off the cash economy, the government has lost its control over you.

Michelle said...

Thank you for writing about this issue! We have been discussing the bill over at Would you care to join us?

Jan Steinman said...

As backing for my earlier comment, I quote David Holmgren, from an interview on

"One of the things I think a lot of the urban planners miss is that they assume that any future framework will be driven by public policy and forward planning and design. Whereas, I think, given the speed with which we are approaching this energy-descent world, and the paucity of any serious consideration of planning or even awareness of it, we have to take as part of the equation that the adaptive strategies will not happen by some big, sensible, long range planning approach, but will happen just organically and incrementally by people just doing things in response to immediate conditions."

I'm a big fan of Holmgren's, but he does tend to be wordy and jargonish.

I think what he's saying above is: "Don't worry, the planners are going the way of the dodo bird." Or perhaps, "Just do it!"

Speaking of planning, I have to stop whatever farming I was doing for a few days so I can make drawings and go battle with the bureaucrats over a $200 woodshed... AAARRRGGGHHH!!!


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