Tuesday, March 31, 2009

HR 875 and Food Safety

I am sure that most of our readers are familiar with HR 875, a bill currently referred to committee in Congress. A cry has arisen from bloggers and concerned citizens, warning that this bill will “effectually criminalize organic farming” and could “technically make it illegal to grow a tomato in your backyard.” Those statements certainly sounded alarming to me; if they were true I would be out of business. They also sounded improbable: after all, the USDA has an entire Department devoted to regulating and collecting fees from organic farms, and it is physically impossible for an already undermanned USDA or Health Department to inspect every small farm and backyard to be sure that no illegal produce is being grown.

In order to find the truth of the matter, I looked up the text of the bill itself. It is titled “Food Safety Modernization Act of 2009.” The purpose of the bill is stated as being “To establish the Food Safety Administration within the Department of Health and Human Services to protect the public health by preventing food-borne illness, ensuring the safety of food, improving research on contaminants leading to food-borne illness, and improving security of food from intentional contamination, and for other purposes.” I thought that stating a purpose was unnecessary after reading the last bit.

The definitions come next. The legislators must be careful to define words with hazy meanings such as “food”. Of most importance are the terms “Food Establishment” and Food Production Facility”. The first term refers to any slaughterhouse, meat or vegetable processing facility, or warehouse (restaurants are not included.) Most of HR 875 concerns these establishments.

The term “Food Production Facility” refers to “any farm, ranch, orchard, vineyard, aquaculture facility, or confined animal-feeding operation.” In Section 206 we find the regulations regarding Food Production Facilities. If one reads through the several parts of this section, a few points will probably raise red flags.

First, the new Food Safety Administration is given authority for several actions, most of which can already take place in some form. I will list them one at a time and comment.

(1) visit and inspect food production facilities in the United States and in foreign countries to determine if they are operating in compliance with the requirements of the food safety law;

Inspectors can visit farms to make sure they comply with the standards which are listed later in the bill. Farm inspection already takes place; for example, to sell at our local farmers’ market, an inspector must see our farm and grant me a Grower’s Permit. If I wish to sell eggs at the Market, the Health Department must inspect the refrigerators in which they are kept. These inspections are friendly visits, and farmers who are routinely inspected often come to know their inspector personally.

(2) review food safety records as required to be kept by the Administrator under section 210 and for other food safety purposes;

The records mentioned are for the purpose of tracing food-borne illness back to the source. Section 210 does not specify exactly what must be recorded, but I suspect that records will only be required for commercial farmers. Farmers selling produce only to local consumers, either directly or through farmers’ markets, cannot cause widespread food-borne illness and are much harder to track.

(3) set good practice standards to protect the public and animal health and promote food safety;

This sounds like “Best Management Practices” (BMP), which are already in place. Currently, BMP's are designed to protect the environment, particularly the groundwater and waterways.

(4) conduct monitoring and surveillance of animals, plants, products, or the environment, as appropriate;

This seems very similar to point (1). Perhaps this point intends to allow frequent inspections, rather than a one time visit. This close monitoring could only be practiced on the larger farms (remember, it costs money to hire inspectors), or on farms which have previously shown cause for concern. A farmer who is held accountable to his customers undergoes much more thorough inspection than this.

(5) collect and maintain information relevant to public health and farm practices.

I would like to see consumers more informed about farm practices, but the truth about chicken grown on factory farms would hurt large corporations. The information which this clause intends to be collected and maintained would probably be far less useful.

Next we see everyone's favorite section, Regulations. Here is the text:

(c) Regulations- Not later than 1 year after the date of the enactment of this Act, the Administrator, in consultation with the Secretary of Agriculture and representatives of State departments of agriculture, shall promulgate regulations to establish science-based minimum standards for the safe production of food by food production facilities. Such regulations shall--

(1) consider all relevant hazards, including those occurring naturally, and those that may be unintentionally or intentionally introduced;

(2) require each food production facility to have a written food safety plan that describes the likely hazards and preventive controls implemented to address those hazards;

(3) include, with respect to growing, harvesting, sorting, and storage operations, minimum standards related to fertilizer use, nutrients, hygiene, packaging, temperature controls, animal encroachment, and water;

(4) include, with respect to animals raised for food, minimum standards related to the animal’s health, feed, and environment which bear on the safety of food for human consumption;

(5) provide a reasonable period of time for compliance, taking into account the needs of small businesses for additional time to comply;

(6) provide for coordination of education and enforcement activities by State and local officials, as designated by the Governors of the respective States; and

(7) include a description of the variance process under subsection (d) and the types of permissible variances which the Administrator may grant under such process.

There are two parts of this that might sound problematic at first, namely point (3) and (4). I believe that this clause in point (3) may be leading to the statements about this bill outlawing organic farming: "minimum standards related to fertilizer use". Once again, pay attention to the grammar. It is not setting a minimum amount of fertilizer applied to crops (which any farmer would tell you is an absurd notion), but setting minimum standards for safe fertilizer use. This is more likely to limit how much, how often, or what kind of fertilizer may be applied.

The other parts of point (3) are already regulated under other laws to some extent. Again, regulations in these areas will be applied primarily to commercial growers (those selling to wholesale dealers and grocery stores), as smaller growers selling retail are too numerous to regulate so precisely. Point (4) calls for minimum standards in raising animals. These standards will undoubtedly fall far short of humane treatment, since that would outlaw most CAFO's.

It may seem at this point that I am in favor of the bill, but that is far from the truth. If you haven't already, please contact your representative and tell them to vote No on this bill if it makes it through Committee. The problem with HR 875 is not the part about farms; the problem is the rest of the bill, the parts that apply to the "Food Establishments". These regulations are framed in the same way as regulations on eggs and chicken processing. Just as the regulations make no distinction between a farmer growing and processing a few thousand chickens per year and a slaughterhouse moving 100,000 chickens through in a day, this bill makes no distinction between huge processing facilities owned by multi-national conglomerates and small, family-owned processing facilities. HR 875 could potentially put those small processing facilities out of business, so it needs to be voted down.

The purpose of HR 875 is to modernize and improve food safety, but can it really accomplish that? No matter how much information the FDA has to trace food to its source, it is useless until someone gets sick. Then, because of our massively centralized food system, many other people could become sick before the food is recalled. This reactionary policy may be the best tool that the FDA has, but it falls far short of solving our food safety problem.

With that said, I'm not the sort of person to give a question without answering it. I believe that we can assure food safety for our nation, but the answer won't be found in the government. The only way to keep food safe is to take a simple, but revolutionary, step. Encourage small farmers to supply the food to their local communities. This is not a step forward, but a step back in time. Such a step would decentralize our food network, create more sustainable communities, and provide a living for thousands of young people who would like to farm but see no way to make a living at it.

Once small farmers are feeding the nation, their farms can be inspected by their customers. Apparently the FDA and USDA think customers too stupid to assess the cleanliness of a farm, but this manner of inspection is more rigorous than anything that the government provides. The dirty farmers would be pushed out of business before you could say salmonella. You, the eater, hold the key to food safety in your hands. Vote for local agriculture with your food dollar: buy from your local farmers.

Edited to add: I forgot to mention another point against this bill. It mentions NAIS (the National Animal Identification System), a monstrosity which the USDA sponsors. NAIS would require every animal to be tracked from birth until death, but thankfully, NAIS has received widespread opposition and is not in effect. It is interesting to note that attempts to make NAIS compulsory in certain states have failed: the states ran over their budgets in legal fees. However, HR 875 relates to the FDA while NAIS relates to the USDA, so this bill is separate from and does not affect NAIS.