Food Safety Alert

but not about polluted peanut butter or killer burgers. It’s something ( potentially) even worse: legislation that in its present form could wipe out small farms, just when the government is starting to understand their enormous value.

In spite of the freakout that’s been careening around the blogosphere, these proposed laws are not a fascist plot. It’s simply that – as you may have noticed – congress has gotten into the habit of being so spooked by current events it rushes into action without considering unintended consequences.

And it looks like they’re about to do it again, this time with an avalanche of well-meaning regulations (S425, HR 759, HR 814, and HR 875 *) aimed at making our food system safer, all the way from farm to fork.

Great idea, except for the part where the laws see no difference between a California corporation with a thousand acres of lettuce and Joe the farmer with fifty acres whose lettuce is only one of twenty assorted vegetables.

Since almost all of the contamination (like almost all of the food) is coming from factory farms, it’s not surprising the standards are written with those farms in mind. The scary thing is that right now those standards are “one size fits all.”

Do you want to sell 200 pounds of home grown tomatoes to your local school lunch program? No go, unless you’ve been doing exactly the same extensive paperwork and expensive testing as the largest tomato producer in Florida.

Unintended consequence: small farms that serve regional markets cannot afford to comply with the rules and are driven out of business in droves. Consumers are stuck getting all their food from distant agribusiness giants overseen by government agents.1

Sound extreme? Read how easily it could happen in this New York Times op-ed by Shannon Hays, whose farm is typical of the ones that would be adversely affected.

What to do? The usual: Speak Out.  No need to invent from scratch: Russell Libby, Executive Director of the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association has written a good set of working principles, rich with talking points. Read it here and go from there.

It’s easy to E-mail or call your Representative and your Senator. Also those on the House and Senate agriculture committees. On the congress front, a very short call or e-mail  is as good or better than a long letter; they’re basically just hearing “yes” or “no” regardless of what you say.

But polite letters touching on a few of Mr. Libby’s points or of course making points of your own can make a huge difference as letters to the media: newspapers, magazines, radio and TV. Roll Call has provided an enormous directory of possible targets here, with all of their phones and e-mail addresses.

* The Bills and and their sponsors, as described by the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association.

S425, Sen. Sherrod Brown, which focuses on traceability (including livestock identification);

HR 759, Rep. John Dingell, FDA Globalization Act of 2009, which thoroughly updates (and expands) FDA’s authority on a wide range of food and drug issues, and mandates electronic trace-back systems;

HR 814, Rep. Diana DeGette, TRACE Act, which would require systems to trace all foods at all stages, including livestock, meat, poultry, eggs and egg products;

HR 875, Rep. Rosa DeLauro, Food Safety Modernization Act, which would establish a new Food Safety Administration, separate from FDA. Farms would be required to maintain more detailed records and use “good practice standards”.

Final note: having said these bills are not an evil plot I want to make clear I do see the heavy hand of big ag and its lobbyists at work. But to a large extent I think that’s happened simply because factory farming has had a lock on our food system for such a long time now.

It’s the only agriculture most legislators know, the only one they can imagine and the only one that can really feed everybody – or so most of them think, which is where the evil plotters come in. Convincing decision makers that there’s no viable alternative to factory farming remains a growth industry, as far as I know.


1. Most oversight/inspection isn’t and won’t be by government agents. It’s by private companies, licensed by the government and paid by the inspectees. Most of the time this works out fine. When it doesn’t, you get those peanuts … and the rating agencies that gave top grades to rotten financial instruments.

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