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December 09, 2016
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Food safety: a tale of regulatory abuse

For most of the last 10,000 years people have farmed in a challenging give-and-take dance with Mother Nature. Over time, farmers sought to change the dance, to bend nature to produce more (quantity) and to create better (quality) results—from animal husbandry to plant biology to mechanization that made farm work easier. In the 20th century, industrial farming turned to chemistry—synthetic fertilizers and pesticides—and now genetic engineering to boost production. U.S. farm policies were developed, ostensibly, to regulate on behalf of consumer health and safety, and to support farmers to produce commodity crops to feed a hungry nation and world. Where once farming was only about the relationship between the farmer and his land, today we have an agricultural system dominated by a relatively small number of agribusiness corporations, with government as a key player, too.

Now comes the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) passed by the U.S. Congress in December 2010. The federal agency charged with writing the regulations to implement this law, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), is nearing the end of its rule-making process; the window for the public to comment on the rules closes on November 15.

Many farmers with small- to medium-sized family farms are worried. So are organizations like FarmAid and the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (, which are calling for the FDA to scrap its proposed rule on farm standards for produce growers and its preventative control requirements for food facilities and to start the rule-writing process over again.

While it is touted as a law that will make our food safer, even the U.S. Department of Agriculture has concluded there is no evidence the FSMA will prevent food-borne diseases.

Furthermore, these rules would place costly regulatory burdens on small farm and food businesses that already struggle to achieve a narrow profit margin. Figures from 2011 show the average net farm income nationally is just 10% of sales. Meanwhile, the FDA’s own numbers project that the typical small produce farm that earns less than $250,000 in sales (the very farmers we see when we visit local farmers’ markets) will spend 6% of its revenue to comply with proposed on-farm regulations. (You do the math. The federal government would end up with half of the farmer’s profits.)

Likewise, critics of the rules point to small mom-and-pop food entrepreneurs who will face impractical and costly testing and treatment requirements. The FDA calculates that 73% of the costs of the new rules for food facilities will be carried by businesses with 20 or fewer employees, even though they produce just 4% of the food consumed in the U.S. Clearly the FSMA favors big food corporations that can cover these costs thanks to economies of scale. (It is worth noting that these same large food corporations would be none too sorry to see their smaller local and regional competitors close.)

Last week we wrote an editorial about Sullivan County’s efforts to build a local food system with infrastructure like the new slaughterhouse to support livestock farmers, a food hub and an incubator kitchen. This week we are expressing concern for these kinds of efforts. FSMA compliance costs for food hubs are estimated at as much as 8% of these facilities’ annual sales, and the proposed rules for local food hubs are the same as for manufacturing plants with 499 employees.

Finally, the rules appear to have been written by people who know little about farming. Take, for example, rules that would make it almost impossible to use compost and manure fertilizer on produce farms; applying manure to a field would mean not harvesting a crop from that field for nine months.

At a time when consumers, farmers and food entrepreneurs are partnering in a burgeoning local food movement to build a network of profitable small- and medium-scale farms that will serve local and regional markets, the proposed FSMA rules threaten to undo important advances.

We suggest that if you are a farmer, or if you are interested in supporting local farmers, then send your comments to the FDA before November 15. If you feel you do not know enough to comment, at least consider checking out FarmAid’s suggested action regarding FSMA at this shortened link:

[Editor’s note: The facts and figures in this editorial come mostly from NSAC and from the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture (PASA). Citizens can find research on FSMA at this website ( including suggestions for how to comment on the FDA’s proposed rules.]

For other reading on this topic, see: