Small farmers lodge complaints about food safety law


With the November 15 deadline looming for comments on two key food safety regulations, organizations representing organic and small farmers are urging members to write in and criticize them. Some interests didn't wait until the last minute: the proposed rules have already received a slew of comments, according to analysis of proposed rules using Sunlight's Docket Wrench tool.

At issue for the sustainable agriculture crowd is how and whether the new rules apply to small farming and processing operations. The Food Safety Modernization Act, which authorized the regulations, included an exemption for the small operators thanks to an amendment sponsored by Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont. "The bill needed to account for locally grown food from farming and processing operations that directly market their products to consumers," Tester told Food Safety News in 2011. Such farms, Tester argued, pose little risk "compared to corporate farms that ship their products hundreds and hundreds of mile to their markets." Under the law, operations that gross less than $500,000 a year are exempt.

But now small farmers and processors are saying the Food and Drug Adminstration's proposed rules do not meet the spirit of Tester amendment, and could force many of the small businesses to close. In one piece that ran recently in the liberal publication Mother Jones, the author humorously warns that "you might be annoyed by the amount of kohlrabi….in your [Community Supported Agriculture box], but probably don't want it to disappear altogether" — an argument meant to appeal to consumers who buy shares in local farms.

The National Sustainable Agricultural Coalition has posted an action alert calling the public to "stand up for food and farms today!" and lodge their criticisms with the FDA. A letter posted on the FDA's regulatory docket contains identical language, including: "Ensure that diversified and innovative farms, particularly those pioneering models for increased access to healthy, local foods, continue to grow and thrive without being stifled."

"I urge the FDA to change the provisions governing “qualified exemptions” for small farms and food processors," several people wrote to the FDA, copying word for word from a letter circulated by the Farm and Ranch Freedom Alliance, a Texas-based organization devoted to supporting family farms. The group issued a press release earlier this month urging organizations to sign on to a group letter calling on the agency to enforce the Tester amendment.

READ MORE: Sunlight Foundation reporting on new food safety laws.

Tony Corbo, a lobbyist for Food and Water Watch, which has not yet filed its comments, applauds the letter writing campaigns. "Some aspects of the proposed rule need to be changed to make them more flexible for smaller farmers," he said. The Washington, DC-based group, which advocates for the environment and food safety, supported the Tester amendment during debate over the food safety bill.

But the Center for Science in the Public Interest has filed comments arguing that the Tester amendment be strictly construed: "The definition will have a significant impact on public health and consumer safety because very small businesses can be exempted from preventive food safety plans," wrote David Plunkett, senior staff attorney, in letter on the food processors rule.

In an email exchange with Sunlight, Plunkett added that he applauds small farmers for getting involved in the process. "There may be issues where FDA should listen to farm concerns and make changes to the rules," he wrote. "But there are also issues where the sustainable and organic ag movement has gone way overboard in their claims and complaints."

Many comments are often received at the last minute as a deadline approaches, and some of the bigger players, such as the Grocery Manufacturers Association and United Fresh Produce Association, had yet to file theirs at the time of this posting. Last summer, United Fresh spearheaded a successful drive by agribusiness to delay the comment period for the rules. Meanwhile, in an echo of the Obamacare website problems, the FDA commenting website crashed this week, raising the ire of the Cornucopia Institute. "This is potentially disenfranchising thousands of farmers and consumers, and is flat-out unacceptable," said Will Fantle, codirector of the group which advocates for sustainable agriculture.

The FDA has been slow to implement the Food Safety Modernization Act, so much so that it is now under court ordered deadlines to produce various regulations. The law is designed to address the outbreaks of foodborne illnesses such as e. coli and listeria in fresh produce that have sickened and even killed the people who ate them. This year alone, hundreds fell ill when eating salad mix and cilantro infected with Cylospora cayetanensis and more than a hundred were infected with hepatitus A after eating an organic frozen berry mix sold at Costco, according to reports by the Centers for Disease Control.

It took the FDA about a year after Congress approved the food safety law for the agency to send five proposed regulations to the White House's Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, part of the routine process for major federal regulations. While under review, they were the subject of meetings with outside groups, dominated by agribusiness representatives. It wasn't until January 2013 that the FDA published two of the proposals–dealing with production and processing of food–and opened them for comment. Two more regulations were proposed in July dealing with imported food. In October, the agency released another regulation designed to protect food destined for animal consumption, meant to prevent outbreaks like this one of salmonella in dog treats. The FDA just sent a proposal to the Office of Management and Budget aimed at preventing the food supply from being contaminated by terrorism or sabotage.

Updated to add: On November 15, the FDA announced a one week extension to November 22 for filing comments on the FSMA: We are very interested in your comments…That is why we are concertned about the intermittent technical difficulties that have occurred in November with the website, which have prevented some people from submitting comments." Read the full statement here.


Follow proposed Food Safety Modernization Act regulations on Docket Wrench

  • Food processors. Requires food processors to have written food safety plans, sets out other requirements for safe processing. Comments due November 15. Update: delayed until November 22. 
  • Food growers. Establishes science-based standards for growing, harvesting, packing, and holding produce. Comments due November 15. Update: delayed until November 22. 
  • Foreign suppliers. Requires importers to verify that food meets same level of public health protection as that required of domestic food producers. Comments due November 26; agency expected to extend to January 24, 2014.
  • Third party accreditation. Establishes a program to accredit auditors to conduct food safety audits and certify foreign facilities as meeting food safety standards. Comments due November 26; agency expected to extend to January 24, 2014.
  • Animal consumption. Establishes preventive controls to ensure that commercial food for animals, including pets, is safe. Comments due February 26, 2014.

Under review by Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs–not yet published for comment

Under development at FDA