Is the Food Safety Modernization Act Good for Small Farms?

In Food Policy This Week: 5 News Bites

A roundup of news clippings we're reading that affect the way we eat.


[Photograph: Flickr]

Way back in 2010, we covered the passage of the Food Safety Modernization Act, the first major reform to the U.S.'s food safety regulations since 1938. The FSMA gives the Food and Drug Administration increased oversight capabilities and imposes more stringent food safety requirements for producers. The Act's ultimate goal is to reduce the number of foodborne illnesses and deaths that occur in the U.S. (in 2011, the Center for Disease Control estimated 48 million sicknesses, 128,000 hospitalizations, and 3,000 deaths are caused each year by foodborne diseases).

This summer, the FDA has been holding feedback sessions across the country, meeting with producers and consumers who would be affected by the FSMA. These sessions have re-ignited debate around whether the FSMA requirements are suitable for small farms and producers. Many local media outlets have picked up stories of farmers planning or expecting to rebel against the new regulations.

Back when the FSMA was first passed, Grist hosted a debate among experts in the field about whether the regulations were good for small farmers. The primary opposition to FSMA has been that keeping up with the documentation and infrastructure required by the new regulations would be disproportionately difficult for small farmers. Many farmers and farm advocates argue that the lower operating budgets and minimal workforces of small farms put them at a disadvantage, and that the FSMA provisions are sweeping reform applied to a diverse community.

One of the most controversial aspects of the FSMA provisions is a requirement that farmers regularly test their irrigation water for E. Coli. While not a bad idea from the consumer perspective, farmers would have to implement extensive testing and reporting systems to ensure that accurate information about their irrigation water was provided to the FDA. Some small farmers say they're simply not equipped financially for this kind of investment.

Another stipulation requires all farmers to abide by standardized food safety regulations, including proper packaging, source labeling, and washing. This presents another financial hurdle, and also raises the hackles of some farmers who feel their less-policed systems are working just fine. "Most farmers like me already have a 'contract' with our customers that our food is safe to consume," says one Georgia farmer. "If we didn't, we'd be out of business." The FDA is seen as an unwelcome late-omer to an economy that many feel is operating just fine without government scrutiny.

There are several exemptions available to small farmers —for instance, the FSMA regulations don't apply to farmers with under $25,000 in annual gross sales, and only partially apply to farmers who gross less than $500,000 annually or who sell more than half of their farm-processed food direct to consumers via farmers markets or farmstands. These loopholes might render this debate somewhat moot as the FSMA is rolled out in the coming months. Ideally, the FDA could better protect consumers while also providing adequate means for farmers to meet their standards. Hopefully ,the FSMA will result in fewer foodborne illnesses without booting small farmers out of the market.