Agriculture in the United States faces a significant and potentially devastating threat from sweeping new federal food-safety regulations.
As consumer demand for locally grown produce grows and the economic and public health benefits of local food systems stack up around the country, these new proposed food-safety regulations could bring all that to a screeching halt.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has proposed rules implementing the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) that, by the agency’s own analysis, could reverse the trend of new and beginning farmers entering the industry and force many existing farms and food businesses out of operation.
Consequently, these rules could reduce the supply of fresh, nutritious, local produce and increase our nation’s dependence on imported food.
The proposed produce rule establishes new burdensome regulatory standards that govern production practices on farms that produce fresh food for people, such as how they manage things like water and recordkeeping.
In the analysis accompanying the proposed rule, the new rules are estimated to cost the domestic produce industry about $460 million annually.
The rules, available for public comment in the Federal Register until Sept. 16, are estimated to cost farmers:
=Very small farm, $25,000-$250,000 in sales, about $4,700 per year
=Small farm, $250,000-$500,000 in sales, about $13,000 per year
=Large farm, more than $500,000 in sales, about $30,500 per year
For many farmers who are currently growing produce and for beginning farmers who are interested in growing produce for local direct or wholesale markets, the cost of compliance will be too steep.
The FDA’s analysis says “the rate of entry of very small and small [farm] businesses will decrease” as a result of the produce rules.
Former USDA Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan said in a recent speech the FSMA rules have the potential to “destroy some operations.”
A bipartisan, bicameral group of legislators, in a May 28 letter to FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg, noted rising consumer demand for organic and locally produced farm goods has led to increased economic opportunity, often aided by substantial public investments in infrastructure.
The letter noted “the proposed FSMA rules threaten to undermine those investments.”
In passing the FSMA, Congress included many provisions intended to protect local food production and distribution from inappropriate and costly regulations.
Congress included directives for modified risk and scale appropriate requirements for farms and entrepreneurs with short supply chains and sales below $500,000.
The $500,000 sales threshold, however, applies to all food produced by the farm, not just the fresh produce that is regulated by FSMA. Corn, soybeans, cattle, pigs and eggs sold by a farm all count towards this threshold.
This means if a farm with 500 acres of field corn and around $500,000 in annual sales also has a few acres planted in mixed vegetables to sell at a local farmers market or plants a field of pumpkins for an October farm stand, those few acres would be covered by the full produce rule even if their total sales only amounted to $50,000 or less.
This would subject farmers to thousands of dollars in annual compliance costs — even if the majority of their crop (field corn) isn’t subject to the new rules.
The problems with the proposed FSMA rules don’t end there.
The rules do not explicitly protect conservation practices on farms that are essential to protect water quality and provide important wildlife habitat.
The rules include costly water and water-testing standards. Manure and compost standards conflict with the National Organic Program regulations and rely on limited scientific evidence. The list could go on.
If implemented as is, the FSMA produce rules could mean the end of diversified farming as we know it, drastically curtailing agriculture opportunity for beginning and older farmers alike.
The only way to help protect family farms and communities is to speak out.
Please submit your comments by Sept. 16 at www.federalregister.gov/articles/2013/04/26/2013-09761/standards-for-the-growing-harvesting-packing-and-holding-of-produce-for-human-consumption-extension.
Urge your friends, neighbors and customers to submit comments, too.
To learn more about the FSMA and the potential effects of the proposed produce rule, the federal comment period and what you can do to protect diversified family farms and local food visit: http://sustainableagriculture.net/fsma/.
Wes King is interim executive director of Illinois Stewardship Alliance and co-chairman of the marketing, food systems and rural development committee of the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition.