Food Safety Modernization Act
Danger Zone: Will new food safety regulations curb your local food enthusiasm?
Think back to a warm summer day. With a canvas bag in tow, you meander through the vibrant produce stands at the West Tisbury Farmers’ Market. Fresh basil, plump heirloom tomatoes, and aromatic peaches tantalize with their sights and smells. The Island, brimming with residents and tourists alike, celebrates its local bounty.
It’s the type of day we all cherish— deepening our connection to the community, while supporting our local farmers. And it’s the type of day that may be in jeopardy as new federal food safety regulations roll out of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
In an effort to up the ante against food-borne illnesses like E. coli and salmonella, which cost the United States an estimated $152 billion annually, Congress passed the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) in 2010, and President Obama signed it into law in January of 2011. The new law, FSMA, represents the first major overhaul of the nation’s food safety infrastructure since the 1930s, targeting on-farm practices for produce production. Previously, food safety regulatory oversight was focused on the processing, food handling, and manufacturing sectors—areas shown to be of highest risk for foodborne pathogen contamination.
The FDA, which has jurisdiction over produce safety in the United States, created regulations for FSMA and is now accepting comments from the public to shape the final rules—rules that could change the vitality of local food systems across the country.
The Law of Unintended Consequences
A safe food system is unquestionably a good thing. This is especially true in the wake of recent outbreaks of food-borne illness.
But like so many things, the devil is in the details. While FSMA backers say the regulations are necessary for ensuring the safety of our food, others maintain that the FDA’s new rules not only miss the mark, but will actually harm local food outlets, like the farmers’ markets populating Martha’s Vineyard, that are enhancing the relationships between farmers and consumers.
Brian Snyder, Executive Director of the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture, has helped lead national advocacy efforts on behalf of small and mid-sized farms, sustainable agriculture enthusiasts and local food proponents. “All consumers deserve safe, nutritious food to eat,” he says. “And farmers serving local markets want nothing more than to provide that.”
However, he cites the issue of economic survival for smaller farms as a side effect of the new regulations. “The FDA’s new proposed food safety rules would potentially make it harder for any farmer to operate profitably while meeting requirements that are meant for much more complex production systems, where risks are higher.”
That’s the key concern for local food advocates—the new regulations’ one-sizefits- all approach. Opponents of the proposed FSMA rules say that the regulations will conflict with certified organic practices, as well as wildlife and natural resource conservation efforts, and raise concerns that the rules will place untenable costs on small farms.
The FDA estimates that complying with these regulations will cost small farms (operations with gross annual sales of up to $250,000) about $4,697 each year, and mid-sized farms (with gross sales betwee $250,001 to $500,000) about $12,972. Such costs are increasingly difficult to offset for farms with tight profit-and-loss margins and are proportionally higher than the burden on large-scale operations. Brian says that this change “could end up slowing or even stopping the growth of the local food movement.”
Brian likens the FSMA to what has happened with federal inspection requirements for meat and poultry slaughterhouses. In order for meat to cross state lines, USDA inspection and extensive HACCP (Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points) plans for slaughterhouses were required, imposing costs so significant on smaller slaughterhouses that many were forced to shut down.
Over time, livestock producers, who found it increasingly difficult to get their animals to slaughter (and thus, to market) were forced out of business. These heightened regulations eventually contributed to the more consolidated, industrial American meat-processing system we have today.
Reassessing Risk in our Food System
Underlying the debate over FSMA are competing views of what constitutes a safe food system. Those philosophical lines correspond with competing systems of agriculture: one industrial and the other—well—not.
The dominant form of agriculture in the United States—operations growing large swaths of the same crop, heavily dependent on chemical fertilizers and pesticides—tends to be at odds with small, local, generally more sustainable farms. Alternative enterprises often embrace a diversity of crops, animals and landscapes, boosting soil and water health, reducing the use of chemicals and incorporating more localized marketing strategies, like farmers’ markets and CSAs.
And local and regional food systems shorten the supply chain from farmer to consumer. By minimizing handling, storage, and transportation of food, such systems minimize opportunities for contamination; in more localized food systems, each tomato, green pepper or head of broccoli touches fewer hands before reaching our plates.
Local sourcing introduces transparency and traceability into the system. When a problem does occur, the reach of an outbreak is more limited and can be addressed more quickly.
That’s part of the beauty of a regionalized food system: not only do consumers keep dollars in their communities, but they also get to know their farmers, encouraging communication and accountability between parties.
-Jessica Ilyse Kurn & Alicia Harvie