Jury’s still out on new food safety regs

The Recorder
Richie Davis
Thursday, January 10, 2013

Area agricultural officials are still combing through 1,200 pages of federal food safety rules proposed last week to see what the effect would be on small farming operations around the region.“Most everyone is still in analysis mode because it’s a lot to digest,” but the consensus is that the new regulations incorporate “alternative compliance measures” appropriate for small and mid-size farmers, said Annette Higby, policy director for the New England Farmers Union.

The comment period for the proposed rules — the most extensive food safety regulations in decades — extends for 120 days from last Friday’s release, with implementation taking effect 60 days after a final rule is published — although in some cases, there would be more leeway. For example, some very small operations like those in Franklin County — based on the value of products sold — would be allowed as long as six years to comply with some specific requirements.

“If they have to do a (Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points) plan, that needs to be affordable and on a scale that’s appropriate and be risk-based, so that the regulations are really focused on areas that have high risk, to make sure that consumers are protected and farms that are small and mid-size are not overly burdened,” said Higby, adding that many farmers union members are above the size threshold.

Many of the regulations require safe food-handling practices, involve documenting the handling of foodstuffs from field to grocery and are keyed to farm size.

Philip Korman, executive director of Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture, added, “We’ve seen that sometimes those lower thresholds still don’t work. We’ve seen already that there are thresholds we’ve had on some farms that are not small enough. There are farms already following those safe practices, but even the impacts of having to document the safe practices means there’s additional cost.”

The serious health outbreaks that have been seen recently, said Korman, have spotlighted industrial agricultural operations that mix products from different farms at facilities that distribute nationally, so that identifying the source of an outbreak can be difficult. “So I’m concerned about looking at the details of ensuring they adequately address the hazards you may have at smaller facilities and smaller farms, and that there are regulations appropriate for that, because often, they’re just applying one-size-fits-all regulations. And they allow a little more time for smaller enterprises to follow suit, but it starts affecting farms of all sizes pretty soon because we have food retailers that start implementing their own rules.”

Especially for small farms, the additional costs can be too much to bear. Diemand Farms in Wendell, for example, opted to get out of the wholesale egg business rather than face a crush of expensive of paperwork it saw coming. The egg business had been a mainstay of its operation since the farm’s founding in 1940, but Diemand chose in 2011 to increase diversification of other parts of the business.

“The FDA is taking action because of nationwide outbreaks food poisoning issues that come from industrial agriculture,” said Korman. “The state Department of Agricultural Resources has been working on appropriate farm practices, and farmers have known for a number of years to take steps to ensure safety of the food supply. That’s not to say there isn’t more we could learn and it isn’t to say we couldn’t do a little better. But we’re hopeful the regs are dealing with the biggest problems, which originate with large-size industrial agriculture.”

Beyond the promulgation of appropriate regulations, Korman said, there’s also the challenge of funding to effectively implement them. “We want our lives to be better and safer. If we want appropriate enforcement of appropriate regulations,” he added, “we have to be able to pay for them without driving out small farmers, who are challenged right now.”

The rules would require farmers to take new precautions against contamination, to include making sure workers’ hands are washed, irrigation water is clean, and that animals stay out of fields. Food manufacturers will have to submit food safety plans to the government to show they are keeping their operations clean, too.

The long-overdue regulations are expected to reduce the estimated 3,000 deaths a year from foodborne illness.

Since last summer, outbreaks of listeria in cheese and salmonella in peanut butter, mangoes and cantaloupe have been linked to more than 400 illnesses and as many as seven deaths, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The actual number of those sickened is likely much higher.

The produce rule would mark the first time the FDA has had real authority to regulate food on farms. In an effort to stave off protests from farmers, the farm rules are tailored to apply only to certain fruits and vegetables that pose the greatest risk, like berries, melons, leafy greens and other foods that are usually eaten raw. A farm that produces green beans that will be canned and cooked, for example, would not be regulated.

(The Associated Press also contributed material for this article)