Yates: For real food safety, support local food and local oversight

Editor’s note: This commentary is by food and travel writer Dorian Yates, author of Vermont Eats, an app featuring local, organic and artisanal foods in Vermont, and the Traveling Naturally guidebooks, apps and blog. She is a contributor to Lonely Planet and Edible Green Mountains.

For those who care about local foods, small farms and Vermont’s economy, the deadline for submitting comments to the FDA on the new Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) is upon us (Nov. 15). Signed into law by President Obama in January of 2011, the FDA has taken more than two years to move FSMA through its rule-making procedure. The FDA hails FSMA as the most “sweeping reform of food safety laws in over 70 years.” An undeniably important objective given the attention-grabbing headlines announcing outbreaks of foodborne illness from hamburgers, chicken, fruits and vegetables, FSMA unfortunately undermines some of the safest producers of food in the nation — our local farmers.

The “sweeping” law risks sweeping the little guy right out of business. Designed to cover the disparate extremes of industrial farming and neighborhood farm stands, FSMA’s one size fits all is a disaster in the making. The voluminous 548-page law is confusing. On the surface it appears that farms grossing less than $500,000 would be exempt from the law, but on closer examination, many farms would indeed have to comply with the expensive and cumbersome rules. How many? Neither the state agriculture department nor the FDA can answer that definitively, but based on USDA numbers and income criteria likely hundreds of Vermont farms will be affected.

At an FDA “listening session” held at the end of August, farmers from Vermont and New Hampshire gave FDA representatives a universally unfavorable earful. Across the board, farmers felt the proposed law would put onerous requirements on them, consume their already tiny profit margins, hamper growth, and force many of them out of business.

Over the course of the session, many farmers expressed their frustration at the inconsistencies and double standards in federal food safety policy. The majority of foodborne illness outbreaks come from imported foods and large-scale industrial food companies, not small, diversified farms in New England, but the FDA admits it is able to inspect only about 2 percent of imported food. While the government plans to impose increasingly cumbersome regulations on small produce farms, they are simultaneously relaxing and changing laws that will deleteriously affect food safety: allowing chicken products to be processed in China and cutting back on inspectors at slaughterhouse kill-lines by 75 percent, leaving only one inspector where there used to be four.

The question begs, does trying to reduce the 200 some odd annual cases of foodborne illness which can not be definitively linked to Vermont’s small farms justify the enormous health and economic impact of FSMA throughout the state?

Announced by the CDC a month before Obama signed FSMA into law, the new estimated numbers of foodborne illness are almost 2,000 times the rate of illness and 150 times the rate of death that were documented between 1998 and 2008. In Vermont, cases of foodborne illnesses are low — about 250 statewide in 2012 — although relative to population they hover around what the Vermont Department of Health cites as the national averages for reported cases in 2011. Over the past 20 years, the number of cases in Vermont has stayed relatively consistent. The department’s most recent report on foodborne illness, dated May 2013, explains that Vermont’s cases are mostly “sporadic” — i.e. they are not connected.

When state epidemiologist and foodborne illness expert Erica Berl was asked if she thought foodborne illness in Vermont could be traced to small local farms, she replied, “Causation is very difficult to prove and often near impossible with the small numbers in Vermont. It is impossible to state that foodborne illness does or does not ever come from small farms. What we know, capital K, is that there are certain high-risk foods linked to certain pathogens.”

In short, there is no way to prove that any small farms in Vermont have caused any foodborne illness in the state. But, there is also no way to prove they haven’t.

While the state may not be able to say unequivocally that small farms are not the cause of foodborne illness, the farmers made it very clear to the FDA that they do not believe they are to blame for outbreaks in the state. Repeatedly farmers said, “My family and I eat the food we are growing and selling. We would be the first to get sick if there were a problem.” Others commented that since they know their customers, they would be aware if people were getting sick.

Some farmers expressed their fear that as small farms are forced out of business that foodborne illness will increase, not decrease. The question begs, does trying to reduce the 200 some odd annual cases of foodborne illness which can not be definitively linked to Vermont’s small farms justify the enormous health and economic impact of FSMA throughout the state? If society’s goal is to keep reducing or trying to reduce the percentages of people who are sick then maybe the small farms of Vermont should be viewed as part of the healthy solution and goal, not as the culprits.

There is a reason Vermont has, per capita, the most farmer’s markets, certified organic farms, certified organic farm land, CSAs, local dollars spent on local foods, artisan cheese-makers, micro-breweries, and maple producers in the entire country. We love our local food producers, we care about our health and we are proud of Vermont’s agricultural heritage.

Champion real food safety and security. Let FSMA fulfill its mandate by regulating those producing contaminated food, not those providing healthy food. Let the FDA know that you support Vermont local farms and local oversight. Tell the FDA that farms grossing less than $500,000 should be completely exempt from FSMA and regulated locally, by the Vermont Department of Agriculture, not the federal government. Keep Vermont’s farmers in business and keep our food healthy. Send your comments  to the FDA by Nov. 15.


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