The Local Food Report: some serious stuff

We have some serious stuff to talk about today. Namely, food safety laws.

Last year, two pieces of legislation came into the picture: the Food Safety Enhancement Act of 2009 and Senate Bill 510, the Food Safety Modernization Act. Reforming food safety was a big item on Obama's to-do list when he showed up, and after all the hoopla over the peanut contamination and the e. coli in our spinach, everyone around him was more than happy to get to work. The bills' official purposes, respectively, are to amend the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act to improve the safety of food in the global market and to amend the same act with respect to the safety of the food supply. The Food Safety Enhancement Act passed the House last year in July, but the Senate is more interested in S. 510. There's a lot of careful wording in both about importation and adulteration and authorization, and in the Food Safety Enhancement Act at least, a whole section on food tracing. Clearly, they're intended to regulate the big guys.

I first started reading up on them after my conversation with Joel Salatin. (The second part of it aired today, which is why we're back to him again, just in case you were wondering.) We were talking about local food, and barriers to accessing local food, and he brought up food safety laws. Anyone who wants to produce their own food, he said, should be allowed to sell it to an end user. I thought about this, and it seemed pretty reasonable, especially if it's just a neighbor selling someone a zucchini or a box of blueberries. Apparently the FDA thinks so too, because right now a farmer can sell un-processed produce straight to a consumer.

But for riskier foods, like meat and seafood and milk and canned tomatoes, this isn't legal. Of course, that seems pretty reasonable too—if risky foods are regulated, we're less likely to get sick. But Salatin's point is that these laws were created to protect us from huge, industrial farms. They aren't scaled appropriately for say, buying a chicken from a small farmer down the street, someone you know and trust and whose kids have been friends with your kids since the second grade. There isn't really a need for ideas like food tracing when the farmer and the consumer live right down the street and drink beers together and have potlucks and feed each other's kids. There also isn't really a need for much government regulation—if the guy starts selling bad chickens, everyone will very quickly find out, and no one will ever buy anything from him again. His business will be efficiently and effectively shut down, without any help from the FDA.

What people like Salatin are worried about with the new bills is that the price and infrastructure prejudice associated with regulations scaled for big operations will hurt the small producers that are actually, in terms of food safety, often our best bet. Scott Soares, our very own Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources Commissioner, has similar concerns. The composition of farms in Massachusetts and New England are typically smaller, he says, and if you apply regulations with a broad brush, they don't fit here. When I called him last week to get a better grip on all of the tricky legal wording and processes involved in the bills, he went a little bit further. On the economic side, he said, large farms can absorb costs like $500 annual fees for tracking and testing and inspecting, but for small family farms, even that small of a cost can break the bank. He thinks that initiatives like the voluntary USDA Good Agricultural Practices checklist might be the best way to keep people safe, if we also want to keep small farms afloat.

If anything passes, though, Soares thinks it will be the Senate bill. He says there are still a lot of questions about it, mostly involving definitions, but that the National Association of State Agricultural Departments (did you even know these sorts of departments existed? !) is working to keep everyone up to speed on what exactly all the wording means, and that at this point, it's a more likely bet than the Food Safety Enhancement Act passed by the House.

I didn't get a chance to ask Salatin about these bills in particular, their wording or their progress, but I have a feeling I know what Salatin would say about them if I had. He believes very strongly that if he wants to look around, smell around, and ask around and opt out of bar-coded, saran-wrapped, food-police-sanctioned food, he should have the right to do so. Period. Whether it's risky, or not.

And I agree with him, from a personal point of view. The tricky part is that not everyone is able or interested or willing to buy food right now from small, local farms, and that in the global arena—in the world of Monsantos and Peanut Corporations of America and Mission Organics—people need protection. After reading through the bills and talking with Soares and Salatin and even a few friends, I've decided that the best we can hope for is this: We need legislation that will let us build a vibrant, thriving, local food network and keep people safe from bigger producers in the meantime.

It will take a lot of talking and writing and rewording and definition checking to make sure that's what we get. If you are interested in keeping up, check in with the people over here every now and again. They're very good about alerting the public when a vote is about to happen, and especially when it involves the rights of consumers to buy from small farms.

! Monday, I think it might be nice to talk about puddings or ice cream or cakes. Don't you think? Enjoy the weekend, and I'll see you then.


Kyle Alspach said...

Great post, thanks for sharing the insights from Salatin and Soares (along with your own). Did you know that Salatin was recently invited by a Congressional staffer to write language for possible inclusion in the bills? He actually read the language he's submitting during his keynote address at the NOFA/Mass. winter conference last Saturday in Worcester. From what I recall it was worded to do the very thing you wrote about -- make a distinction between factory and small farms. I haven't found any articles written about his speech, but if NOFA posts anything I'll send it along.

Anonymous said...

I'm a firm believer in black-market networks, food included. No, you can't sell it at the restaurant, but some of the best food around is produced by your friends and neighbors who could never afford the set-up costs associated with legal production intended for public peddling. Milk and cheese are two prime examples, and the list grows from there. It's particularly pleasing to barter homegrown or hunted foods with friends. Of course, that has nothing to do with legislation, but everything to do with the sniff test Salatin talks about.

Andrea said...

Kyle - that sounds like good news. I truly hope they make that distinction. As I see it, the problem with food safety and food safety laws is that they are mostly a smoke screen that gives us the illusion of safety while plenty of money is being made by large food producers with sketchy practices. Case in point: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/12/31/us/31meat.html?pagewanted=1&_r=3&hp

Just as taking our shoes off for TSA is not making airline travel safe from terrorist acts, the USDA is not first and foremost interested in keeping us from eating unhealthy food. Salatin also said as much at his APCC talk. When his facilities were tested and found to have much lower bacterial counts than allowable by law, he would have expected them to look at what he is doing and hold it in high regard. And we know how that turned out.

Didn't mean to rant, but this is one that gets under my skin. Let us hope that small farms will get a break for a change.

Elspeth said...

Kyle, thank you. I did not know about Salatin's invitation—that sounds very, very cool. If you find the text, please do pass it along! I would love to read it.

Beth, I am too. We are always trading with gardening friends, and if we had the means to produce meat or honey or eggs I have a feeling we'd be trading those, too. We have gotten a few freezer fill-ups from friends with cows, pigs, and venison to share, which has been incredibly generous and very good on our bellies. The sniff test is a very reliable one, I've found.

And Andrea, case in point is right. Industrial food isn't particularly safe at all, which makes it all the more frustrating and ironic that small, local, self-regulating places get shut down. Don't worry about the rant—I have a feeling it gets a lot of other people worked up, too.

All the best,

Bie said...

Its great you are bringing these laws to our attention.However,at my age I am not equipped to deal with them. I leave that to you all,biee

Elspeth said...


It is a very big task, indeed. Something that I have a feeling will take years and years to tackle, but we have to start somewhere!

Love you,



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