Proposed food safety rules threaten small NE farms

August 5, 2013
Daily Hampshire Gazette
Opinion piece by Philip Korman and Kristen Wilmer

Over the last few weeks the Gazette has reported multiple times on food safety and the proposed government regulations for farms. The proposed rules are wide-ranging, impacting wildlife and farm animal management, water testing, use of biological fertilizers, hygiene practices and more.

This is a vital issue we all need to care about. Why? Because everyone wants to ensure that our food supply is safe and that our neighbor farmers can keep growing the fresh, high-quality food that we love.

Sadly, the proposed regulations could threaten the latter.

In mid-July, CISA (Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture) hosted a workshop and brought speakers from the Massachusetts Farm Bureau and the New England Farmers Union to educate the farming community. Over 40 local farmers attended. The Gazette shared some of the information provided at the training and followed up with an editorial that notes the proposed safety rules would disproportionately affect small farmers with high costs ($13,000 annually for farms with gross sales between $250,000 and $500,000, according to the FDA, though some farm advocates in the Northeast estimate it could cost small farms twice that much).

Yet, time and time again, the greatest risk regarding food safety occurs in the industrial food system. Why? First of all, the industrial food system grows most of our food. Even in western Massachusetts, we estimate that only 10 to 15 percent of our diet is grown in western Massachusetts. Second, there is the commingling of many products from many different farm businesses for items such as bagged salad and ground meat. Third, these food products must be bagged and shipped thousands of miles. Fourth, when an outbreak occurs it is much harder to track it down since it may have occurred in a wide variety of locations in the industrial food chain.

The proposed changes to our nation’s food safety regulations were inspired by the safety problems in the industrial food system. And there is an opportunity here — good food safety regulations could improve the work practices of all farms, including the small farms here in the Valley, with technical support and resources.

To be sure, our small family farms care deeply about the safety of the food they grow since it is the very food on their families’ tables.

But as the proposed rules are written, they lack clarity and often do not fit the size or type of potential risks found on small farms. We could lose our local family farms that are already on the edge in this global food system.

Our community can make a difference, and because of mounting criticism the comment period on the proposed rules has been extended to Nov. 13. We hope the Gazette continues its reporting on this vital issue and we encourage you to stay informed, give thought and take action.

Philip Korman is executive director of Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture, where Kristen Wilmer is program coordinator.