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.

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