Produce Safety Bill May Make Farmer’s Markets A Thing Of The Past
By Olivia Barrow, The Raleigh Telegram
Saturday, July 10, 2010
RALEIGH - With the U.S. Senate preparing to overhaul the nation’s food safety laws
through a bill that passed committee called the Food Safety Modernization Act of
2009 (S510), Senator Kay Hagan (D-N.C.) has co-sponsored an amendment to exempt small
farmers from the added safety requirements of the bill.
The terms of Hagan’s amendment are still in flux, but Hagan said she is committed
to ensuring that North Carolina’s family farms are not subject to additional and
unnecessary layers of federal regulation.
In its current form, the bill will require the Food and Drug Administration to create
new regulations about the production of fruits, vegetables and nuts. The FDA guidelines
would not regulate meat and poultry production.
The primary goals of the new regulations are the prevention of problems and the ability
to trace a contaminated food back to the field it was grown in within 48 hours.
In order to achieve the rigorous traceability goals, the Food and Drug Administration
will have to increase requirements for recordkeeping, which will cost farmers time
One of the more contentious provisions of the bill would require farmers who sell
to the public to get the contact information from every single customer. Some customers
at roadside stands might balk at giving a stranger their personal information just
to buy a cucumber, especially when they can buy some from the grocery store without
having to give up their name and address.
Additional costs incurred by the bill will likely include purchasing new sanitary
harvest containers, toilet facilities and hand-washing stations.
There are provisions in the bill that would also require farmers to register with
the FDA, paying a $500 yearly fee and also undergo safety inspections every year.
Some media reports say the inspections could cost up to $100 an hour.
As a result, to sell some green beans to your neighbors, a small farmer may have
to pay as much as $1000 to satisfy government regulations before they even sell a
Many local farmers and farmer’s market coordinators in North Carolina have expressed
their outrage at the bill, especially as the public have shown an increased interest
in buying food from local sources.
“In regards to the new ‘food safety’ law i think its a shame,” said Jason Stegall,
who operates two farmer’s markets in the Raleigh area.
The farmer’s markets allow local food growers to sell directly to the public at higher
than wholesale prices, allowing them to receive a greater return. Incurring further
costs and regulations could keep many from selling to the public, he said.
“The local sustainable food system has gained great momentum over last few years,”
said Stegall. “For the first time we are seeing out of work people turn to the land
to do this extremely important work of providing quality all natural food at fair
prices. This new law will be a huge discouragement for many as it is already a very
“This law will definitely affect many and damper the momentum we have all worked
to build up,” he added.
Another farmer in eastern North Carolina who both sells to wholesale suppliers and
the general public echoed those sentiments.
“I wouldn’t be against having all farms requiring some kind of sanitation coursework,
but I think when you mandate it based on something bigger, it’s always going to affect
the little guy more so,” said Ben Davis, owner of a transitioning organic farm in
Many smaller farmers have asked why the bill’s provisions put small farmers that
only have a few local customers in the same category with corporate-owned mega farms
that feed thousands across the country.
Recognizing that the cost burden of the bill’s new requirements will be more for
small farmers, Sen. Hagan is working on an amendment to exempt small or low-risk
farms from some or all of the regulations.
The problem comes when you try to define “small.” One version of the amendment would
exempt all farmers producing less than $500,000.
“Food safety rules and regulations should be based on science and risk, and assigning
a dollar value is not necessarily an indicator of risk,” said Debbie Hamrick, director
of specialty crops for the North Carolina Farm Bureau Federation.
Hamrick said the senator was considering a volume metric instead of a dollar value
to determine a farm’s risk level, but the differences between types of fresh produce
would cause problems with that solution as well.
“We do not want to put anyone out of business with food safety regulations,” Hamrick
said. “I have never met a farmer who said he wants to make anybody sick.”
A danger inherent in exempting farmers from the regulations based on size of their
farm can be seen when one segment of the market fails due to some kind of food contamination,
other segments fail as well. The food market is interdependent.
Hamrick gave the example of a farmer growing a half-acre of basil. By the standards
of Senator Hagan’s proposed amendment, this farm would be exempt from all new safety
However, one-half acre of basil is enough to sell wholesale. Basil occasionally
has a problem with salmonella. If the basil was contaminated, the produce would be
untraceable to the farm with the problem, but the market for basil in the entire
region would fail. Large and small farms alike would be affected.
“The traceability requirement, if you’re requiring VIN numbers for everything that
goes out, I disagree with that for small farmers,” Davis said. “It really has no
bearing on small farmers if you’re selling locally.”
In addition, there is no guarantee that the FDA or government officials will correctly
and quickly identify the source of the contamination even if they know all of the
details of the supply chain.
The government blamed outbreaks of salmonella on tomatoes and issued warnings, only
to later find that the true source of the problem was from contaminated pepper plants.
To help protect small farmers and to recognize that their impact on the food supply
chain is certainly not as great as large agribusiness outfits, Hagan’s amendment
includes an exemption for farmer’s markets and other direct-to-consumer markets.
“We’re all wanting to do the right thing and make sure that we have a safe food supply,
while at the same time saying, ‘Look, our farmers are a critical part of our nation’s
infrastructure,’” Hamrick said.
The FDA currently has the authority to make the rules and regulations that would
improve safety and traceability, but as of yet it has decided not to regulate the
food supply. S510 would require the FDA to make these rules in conjunction with
the Department of Agriculture.
“The Food and Drug Administration’s expertise does not lie on the farm,” commented
Debbie Hamrick, director of specialty crops for the North Carolina Farm Bureau Federation.
“If they’re going to be the jurisdictional agency, they need to work with those folks
who understand what’s going on the farm.”
Anything currently in the bill is subject to change when it is considered on the
“From reading about the bill, it’s the big boys trying to do away with the little
guys,” Washington, North Carolina farmer Ben Davis said. “What it’s doing is it’s
going to require an entire new bureaucracy to try to regulate farms.”
Another farmer in North Carolina who operates a roadside stand who wished not to
be identified, said that he saw many problems with the bill.
“Even if they pass it, it will be totally unenforceable,” he said. “Are they going
to drive around and check every farm and vegetable stand?”
Produce Safety Bill May Make Farmer’s Markets A Thing Of The Past
In its current form, a food safety bill will require the Food and Drug Administration
to create new regulations about the production of fruits, vegetables and nuts. The
FDA guidelines would not regulate meat and poultry production, but it could affect
small farmers who sell their produce at local farmer’s markets and could cost them
before they even sell the first vegetable. File photo by The Raleigh Telegram.
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