HANOVER, N.H. — More than 200 farmers, lawmakers and members of farming organizations came to a federal hearing on the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), hosted by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration at the Hopkins Center at Dartmouth College on Tuesday.
Many of them expressed concerns with the proposed rules, saying that they are designed for larger farms and have a one-size-fits-all approach to food safety regulations.
“I think there are some real challenges for small farms in the set of these regulations,” said Chuck Ross, secretary of the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets. “And that’s why we’re so pleased that the farmers came out and spoke … if we don’t speak up now it will be all the more difficult to adjust this in the future.”
Michael Taylor, deputy commissioner for food and veterinary medicine at the FDA, took testimony and answered questions together with Samir Assar, director of produce safety staff, and Jenny Schott, senior adviser to the office of food safety and applied nutrition.
“I insisted that they come up here to the Northeast,” Ross said. “Because we think that what we are doing up here does not necessarily match up well with the draft rules that have currently been written.”
It was not on the FDA’s schedule to visit New England farmers, but after being pressed by senators from Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont in a letter this spring, they decided to come, said Jennifer Nelson, agriculture policy adviser for U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.
The number of farmers who showed up at the hearing, in the middle of harvest, says a lot about how important this issue is to them, said state Sen. David Zuckerman, P/D-Chittenden, who also testified at the hearing.
Rules discourage growth, some say
The Food Safety Modernization Act was signed by President Barack Obama in January 2011, and the FDA presented two proposed rules to the public Jan. 4. The rules are the most comprehensive federal food safety regulations presented in more than 70 years.
But advocates and farmers raised concerns that the new rules don’t fit small farms and organic farms in New England. As the rules read, farmers with average annual sales of less than $500,000 in the previous three years and who market more than 50 percent of all food directly to consumers located within 275 miles are exempt.
At the hearing, several farmers from Vermont and New Hampshire expressed concerns with farms that have a diverse production and are looking to expand.
“A dairy farmer that makes $1 million on milk and only has a few acres of corn shouldn’t have to climb through all that security,” said Dave Rogers of NOFA Vermont.
Food safety regulations that spur farms to stay small is not what we want, said Nelson, Sanders’ agriculture adviser.
Andy Jones of Intervale Community Farm in Burlington expects to reach the $500,000 ceiling soon. His Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program provides food for more than 500 families annually, and he said he would feel an incentive to stop growing if the proposed food regulations come into place.
“I think large farms are completely on board with this,” Jones said. “Because it serves their large-scale market.”
Waiting for fertilizer
Another point brought up by the farmers was the handling of fertilizer. The proposed rule requires nine months between the application of untreated manure and planting; 45 days for treated compost. By comparison, the international organic program requires farmers to wait just four months to plant after they have applied raw manure, Rogers said.
The New England Farmers Union said it fears that a nine-month interval would take fields out of production for an entire growing season.
“In New England where we have such a short growing season there is just no way that you will get a crop off that field in a year’s time,” Rogers said.
Taylor, of the FDA, said there is some misunderstanding about the proposed rules. Of the 190,000 farms nationwide that will be affected by the regulations, nearly 60 percent are exempt from the new requirements based upon their size, he said.
“That said, this is not a one-size-fits-all when nearly 60 percent are exempt,” he said.
Farmers also expressed concern over regulations that would require water testing every seven days if the natural water source is a river or a natural lake. Farmers said that would be too expensive and take too long.
“If a dead deer falls into the river, you might have E. coli positive tests for a week, but then it’s fine,” said Geo Honigford of Hurricane Flats Farm in South Royalton.
He understands that the FDA wants to make sure farmers don’t splash the bacteria E. coli on their plants, but tests have to be sent away and returned for results, and the farmers can’t wait before watering their crops. The only way to know if you have E. coli is to test every time before irrigating, Honigford said.
The risks for E. coli are high when there is a lot of rain, he said. Ninety percent of the time irrigation is done on his 100-acre farm is when it’s dry, and that’s when the risk is the lowest.
“It’s an unrealistic standard that’s somehow going to prove that the source we use is safe,” Honigford said.
“We’re really working very hard to make this good for everyone,” Taylor said. “We have to have a safe food supply and everyone agree on that.”
The written comment period ends Nov. 16, and the FDA plans to have a final rule implemented by the end of June 2015. After that, large farms have up to two years to comply, Taylor said.
Taylor said the water restrictions won’t kick in for two years after the other rules take effect.
“If you add the two years, we’re six years from the rule actually going into effect. So we have time to work with the communities to adapt to these rules,” he said.