Produce, milk, meat, eggs, nuts and all manner of processed foods have made people sick in recent years, and Congress has been understandably itching to cook up a big pot of food-safety legislation. The result, Senate Bill 510, is likely headed for a vote soon in the lame-duck session.
On the surface, food safety is an issue most everyone can get behind. But SB 510's regulatory details offer plenty of points for contention. Small farmers and their supporters, as could be expected, are pitted against the large food factories. But the factory farmers have an unlikely ally: the food-safety crowd, many of whom are motivated by the firsthand experience of losing a loved one to food poisoning.
"For many food-safety organizations, food is a nutritional breakdown of calories and vitamins and minerals," says Paul Hubbard of the Missoula County Community Food and Agriculture Coalition. "Whether those nutrients come from a factory farm via Wal-Mart or the farmers’ market is inconsequential to these groups, as long as the food isn't infected with pathogens."
But by aligning themselves with a mechanized and seemingly more scientific ideal for achieving food safety, organizations like Safe Tables Our Priority are throwing in with factory farms, industrial feedlots and slaughterhouses.
Outbreaks—including the deadly E. coli and salmonella poisonings that have recently stricken our nation's food supply—are created by the grinding gears of economies of scale. Compounding the safety issue is the difficulty of tracing food that's processed along with foods from farms in different places. Such conditions are creating perfect storms of foodborne illness, outbreaks of which have become disturbingly frequent.
The senate bill directs the FDA to rein in the many atrocities resulting from big food gone wild. But since the earliest drafts of SB 510 began circulating more than a year ago, small-farm advocates have worried that the bill—and the agencies that enforce it, primarily the FDA—might hold mom and pops to the same standard as factory farms. This would mean more paperwork, more fees and more infrastructure requirements for agricultural producers who have arguably sold the safest, healthiest food of all.
“Small farms produce our safest food. Why on Earth would anyone interested in food safety want to put them out of business?"
Paul Hubbard, Missoula County Community Food and Agriculture Coalition
"It's ironic that some food safety organizations want to strap small farms with one-size-fits-all regulations—
Josh Slotnick, a salad grower also in Montana, fears SB 510 would require him to build a lettuce-washing shed at cost of about $100,000. He sells to farmers’ markets, restaurants, a growers’ cooperative and area grocery stores. While family farms like this are subject to regulation by local government, large food factories have been able to skirt local regulations because they aren't marketing within those small jurisdictions.
Slotnick says there hasn't been a problem with his greens. If there were one, he says it would be identified and addressed quickly. "Why should I have to follow the same rules as the companies that are washing half the nation's spinach in the same sink?"
An amendment to SB 510 proposed by Sen. Jon Tester (D-Montana) aims to decouple the push for food safety from the possibility that regulations might trample growers like Slotnick. It would exempt operations that market within 275 miles and earn less than $500,000 per year. The amendment also gives the FDA authority to revoke its small farm exemption if the farm in question is linked to a disease outbreak.
Small-farm advocates seem to approve of the principle, if not the numbers. Some of them feel that the cutoffs are set too high, and that it could allow operations that amount to small-scale food factories to escape regulation. Whatever numbers are chosen to define "local" and "small," what's most important, from the perspective of small farms, is that some form of distinction, however imperfect, be factored in.
Given the appeal of food safety on both sides of the aisle, this bill may be pushed through quickly. If you care about it, now’s a good time to contact your senators and let them know you don't want to sacrifice small farms at the altar of food safety.