Farmers happy FDA is listening

The Recorder, December 21, 2013. By Richie Davis.

Area farmers are reacting favorably to a surprise early Christmas present from federal food safety regulators in the form of delays in implementing new rules that many say could have put them out of business.

The Food and Drug Administration announced Thursday that it will revise its sweeping new proposed rules and seek additional public comment after a new version is released sometime next year. That is being hailed as a partial victory by farmers and agricultural groups who feel their comments have been heard.

“I think it’s great,” said Tom Clark of Clarkdale Fruit Farm in Deerfield. “It sounds like they’re willing to re-look at things, and realize that one size doesn’t fit all.”

As a result of more than 150 meetings held around the country — including one last summer in Hadley — Michael Taylor, FDA commissioner for foods, wrote on his blog, “we believe that significant changes will be needed in key provisions of the two proposed rules affecting small and large farmers. These provisions include water quality standards and testing, standards for using raw manure and compost, certain provisions affecting mixed-use facilities, and procedures for withdrawing the qualified exemption for certain farms. We have heard the concern that these provisions, as proposed, would not fully achieve our goal of implementing the law in a way that improves public health protections while minimizing undue burden on farmers and other food producers.”

Clark guessed, “They may be being realistic” as well, since the federal agency realized that by making its regulations so “detailed and onerous” they weren’t going to be able to enforce them.

John Payne of Shelburne’s Foxbard Farm, which raises beef cattle, said, “I think it’s marvelous that they listened, and now they’re going to come back and redo the regulations, and they’re going to come back and listen again.”

Payne, who was among those who attended the Hadley listening session, at which FDA staff acknowledged that the rules proposed last January would be hard on many small farms, praised Congressman James McGovern, D-Mass., for also attending the August session and advocating on their behalf.

Phil Korman, executive director of Deerfield-based Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture, which heard from 1,000 farmers and other community members about the proposal, said that even though the details aren’t yet spelled out, “I think it is good news. The very fact that FDA is acknowledging they didn’t understand and were not able to get the complexity of the issues … so they understand they were way off the mark, and they need to again bring it out to the public to make comments, and again get closer to what it needs to be, that is hopeful. It’s a second chance to speak out.”

Korman said FDA is trying to follow the will of Congress as well as a June federal court order requiring the agency to publish all its regulations by June 30, 2015, and “to their credit, they’re saying, ‘We didn’t get as close as we needed to get it right, and we’re going to try again.’”

That said, Korman insisted, “This was inspired by challenges in the large industrial food system, which had been the source of the overwhelming majority of food safety issues affecting the overwhelming majority of people. The fact that any part of these regs would indicate that it would impact the financial bottom line enough of small family farms that some would go out of business, to me is egregious and outrageous.”

CISA had called for the agency to expand its exemptions for small farms based on the lower risks they pose to consumers, and needed to protect the exempt status of small farmers who weren’t going to be covered by the rules.

Richard Bonnano, president of the Massachusetts Farm Bureau Federation, one of a number of groups that had called for FDA to draw up a second set of draft regulations, said, “They’ve seen there’s a lot of issues, and are willing to fix the few sections we’ve had the biggest issues with — agricultural water, manure and compost management and some of the issues that involve mixed-use facilities — it’s great that FDA has looked so quickly at these comments and is willing to make a second draft available and enable to make further comments.”

In addition to the produce rule governing growing and harvesting, for which smaller growers could have been exempt, a “preventative controls” rule governing any farms where there was mingling with products from other farms allowed for no clear exemptions, Bonnano said.

“Farmers had a lot of concern that anytime you handled product from another farmer, even if you were distributing CSA (community supported agriculture) or holding boxes for somebody so you could ship them together … as soon as they touch anybody else’s product, they’re pushed into the preventative control rules, which required to them to do so much more on farm,” he said.

Yet Bonnano was hesitant to declare “total victory for the small farmers of America. The question of how much better will the regulations be, and our ability to comply with them” remains to be seen. “We definitely need to do our due diligence on the second round, to make sure we get further comments in.”