What Washington Just Did—Food Safety
Written onMarch 01 , 2011
In May of 2009, then-governor Douglas signed legislation that created the Vermont Farm to Plate Program. Over the following 18 months, hundreds of Vermonters came together at Farm to Plate Regional Food Summits to share ideas and strategies to support new farm and food enterprises and to strengthen local and regional markets for Vermont’s agricultural products. On January 12 of this year, in a packed room at the Vermont State House, the fruit of this excellent effort was presented in a comprehensive, 10-year strategic plan for new investments, programs, and legislation to support the continued development of Vermont’s local food system.
And during this same period, both houses of Congress were moving forward with food-safety legislation intended to “fix” some of the serious health-related problems of this country’s industrial-scale food system. A recent estimate by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that food-borne illnesses make 48 million people (1 in 6 Americans) sick; 128,000 are hospitalized and 3,000 die each year. The political pressure on Congress to pass wide-ranging food-safety reforms was intense.
Along with some reasonable and necessary provisions, such as stepped-up surveillance of imported foods and increased inspections of large food manufacturing facilities, the food-safety bills under consideration included language to strengthen the FDA’s food-safety standards and regulations that apply to vegetable and fruit growers and food processors—large and small, national and local. (The U.S. Department of Agriculture administers meat-safety programs and regulations.) The costly investments of time and money required to comply with these new regulations clearly threatened countless small vegetable and fruit farmers, food processors, and local markets in Vermont and throughout the country.
This legislation needed to be fixed.
Across the country, sustainable and organic agriculture organizations, food cooperatives, local food advocates, and progressive consumer organizations, among others, joined in organizing grassroots efforts to press Congress for amendments that would protect the interests of small farms and food processors. The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition’s Food Stafety Task Force (NSAC) led the intensive lobbying effort on Capitol Hill. TheNortheast Organic Farmers’ Association (NOFA) Interstate Council (which represents NOFA’s seven state chapters) and NOFA Vermont were directly involved.
For various reasons, these efforts were vigorously opposed by many well-established and politically powerful national consumer groups, food-borne illness victims’ groups, large-scale farm associations, national food corporations, and public health organizations. Yet on January 4, after a long and torturous political fight of almost two years, President Obama signed into law the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA). It included hard-won revisions that limit the FDA’s power to impose new regulations on Vermont’s, and the nation’s, small farms, local food processors, and local markets. In the end, NSAC, the NOFA chapters, the National Organic Coalition, the National Cooperative Grocers Association, and many other organizations got behind the final bill. Vermont’s Congressional delegation voted in favor of it.
The most significant—and contentious—amendment (the “Tester Amendment”), and the one that allowed NOFA Vermont to support the final bill, prevents the FDA from imposing new standards on fruit and vegetable growers who market at least 50 percent of their product directly to consumers at farmers’ markets, CSAs, roadside stands, stores, restaurants, and other outlets. These growers’ gross annual sales must be less than $500,000 and must take place in-state or within 275 miles of the farm. They are required to identify their farm on labels, posters, or signs at the point of sale. Roughly 85 percent of Vermont’s vegetable and fruit producers qualify under this provision.
Small on-farm and non-farm food processors who meet the same criteria will not be required to implement expensive hazard control plans and other measures that will be required of large-scale processors. Small processors will need to comply with already existing state and local food-safety regulations and identify their products in the ways stated above. Also, “very small” processors (a term that is yet to be defined) who may market most of their products regionally or nationally through wholesale channels will qualify. While a good estimate of the percentage of Vermont’s small processors who will be included under this provision is not yet available, it is safe to say that a significant majority of them will qualify.
Additional amendments, by Senator Bernie Sanders and others, require the FDA to conduct a study of how a farm’s size, diversity, and practices may affect risk and then adjust standards and regulations accordingly. The FDA is required to coordinate proposed regulations with established USDA organic standards and farm conservation practices. The FSMA also authorizes a $50,000,000 grants program to support food-safety training and planning projects for small farms, food processors and wholesalers.
But even with these amendments, the FSMA is far from perfect, and the concerns of some farm groups and advocacy organizations led them to oppose its passage. Of particular concern—to everyone—is a provision that authorizes the FDA to revoke the above protections for small farms and processors if it judges that a product is being produced under conditions that may jeopardize the public’s health. Will the FDA use this authority to ramp up its longstanding campaign against raw milk and cheeses? Will fruits and vegetables produced on some diversified veggie-livestock farms be deemed “high risk”? Will the FDA attempt to define FSMA terms such as “low risk” and “very small” in ways that unfairly disadvantage some farmers and processors?
These and many other questions and challenges will need to be addressed in the coming months and years (!) as the FDA moves forward in implementing the FSMA. It is going to be extremely important that Vermont’s farmers and local food advocates stay informed and politically engaged to make sure that the FDA “gets it right.” After all, we’ve got big plans.
More information about the FSMA and food safety can be found on NOFA Vermont’s website, www.nofavt.org.
Official White House photo by Pete Souza