Food Safety?

Chris Blanchard has authored an interesting editorial in the latest issue of Growing For Market regarding the Food Safety Modernization Act. I’ve blogged about my objections to the Act several times.  In his editorial Mr. Blanchard goes beyond merely objecting to provisions of the Act which threaten the viability of small farms, and challenges the underlying rationale for it, arguing that it’s more about “food safety theater” than food safety, and that it’s about “maintaining the perception of food safety for the large corporations and trial lawyers.”  Here’s a bit of his editorial:

We already have safe food. Even the large, centralized mega-farms and distribution centers in the desert west produce safe food. In 2006, over 50 billion servings of fresh-cut salad greens and spinach were sold in this country – but an E. coli 0157:H7 outbreak that fall killed five people, and spinach sales still haven’t recovered to a pre-2006 level.

Even at that, the Food Safety Modernization Act is not about keeping people safe. If it were, it would regulate all fruits and vegetables, instead of just “covered produce” – those items likely to be consumed raw. If I’m the rare weirdo who eats my beets raw and I die from salmonella poisoning, I’m just as dead as I would be if I got it from salad mix.

And if it were really about food safety, instead of food safety theatre, it wouldn’t exempt anyone: Small farms aren’t necessarily safer than big farms, they are just more likely to fly under the radar of epidemiological methods. Instead, the FSMA is about maintaining the perception of food safety for the large corporations and the trial lawyers.

The people who die in food safety outbreaks are not, by and large, young and healthy. In the 2011 Cantaloupe- Listeria outbreak, the median age of those who died was 81 years. It was the same in the 2006 spinach outbreak. This is the same as the average age of California residents who died from influenza and pneumonia between 2000 and 2007. We don’t have a fresh produce food safety crisis in this country, any more than we have an influenza and pneumonia crisis.

While I’m glad that our farm is exempt (for now at least), the question of why farms whose customers are nearby are allowed to farm in ways that would be deemed “unsafe” by farms whose customers are more distant, seems legitimate and puzzling.  But as I’ve mentioned before, the FDA estimates that the cost of complying with the Act will be over $4,600 for “very small farms,” enough to render many of them nonviable.

The editorial mentions another provision of the Act that will adversely affect us, and to which I hadn’t previously paid any attention.

The moment you handle another farm’s produce, you fall under the much more stringent Preventive Controls Rule. So, if you trim the outer leaves from a head of lettuce from another farm on your farm – or even cool a head of lettuce for another farm, or put a head of somebody else’s lettuce in your CSA box – you are engaged in “processing” and thus subject to a whole different level of regulation.

We don’t use or handle produce from other farms, but one of our best customers is another farm in our community.  That farm often buys produce from us to use in their CSA shares or to sell at their farmer’s market.  Under this law, they probably won’t be able to continue legally doing so.

Mr. Blanchard’s conclusion:  “We’re looking at unfettered enforcement of vague regulations based on outdated science to make it look like we are making our food safe.”

I’m sure that many of the folks who have been involved in getting this Act passed and implemented are well-intentioned.  But as is often the case, the unintended consequences of a government fix may end up being worse than the problem they were trying to solve.  And in this case maybe there was never a problem to begin with.