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Small Farmers Fear FDA Crackdown

[social_buttons] Amid recent outbreaks of E. coli and salmonella in everything from ground beef to cookie dough to spinach, Congress is considering new legislation to make food safer.

Given how often the industrial food industry violates safety procedures, more regulation seems like a no-brainer.

But a story in the San Fransisco Chronicle highlights fears that a federal crackdown on food safety would make it harder for small, organic farms to survive.

The new legislation would give the FDA more power to regulate how farmers grow, store, and transport products. The bill would also give the FDA greater authority to inspect, trace, and recall products when needed.

Most of the problems the FDA needs to correct are problems associated with scale. Large, industrial operations selling processed food in which produce from many different farms are mixed, packaged, and shipped in vast quantities across long distances create favorable environments for harmful bacteria. Large, confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs) are the likely breeding grounds for E. coli found in meat.

Small farms are unlikely sources for tainted products because they’re not moving enough product far enough to promote the growth of dangerous microbes.

Many small farmers are worried that the final version of the bill, which passed the House last summer and is currently before the Senate, will take a one-size-fits-all approach. Lack of consideration for farm size, crop diversity, and organic philosophies could be disastrous for farmers who have stepped away from the industrial system.

Sam Hilmer, who runs the small, organic farm and vineyard where I work, thought that the new FDA program could put small farms out of business.

“I’ll tell you who’d be really stoked about this legislation,” he said, “Big farms.”

Federal enforcement of costly, scientific safety protocols put smaller growers at a disadvantage because their compliance costs are spread over fewer acres.

The FDA’s focus on sterility also conflicts with small, organic farmers’ dependence on microorganisms to promote soil fertility. Hilmer relies on these microrganisms to help his plants ward off pests and disease without the use of chemicals.

Joanna Duley, another farmer at Claverach, was worried about the potential for a FDA crackdown but also confident that her farm and others like it could find ways to keep their current momentum.

“With creativity and intelligence, you can circumvent this type of legislation” she said.

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Image courtesy of cindy47452 via a Creative Commons license.

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