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Column: A Law That’s Not Really Needed Puts Upper Valley Farms at Risk

Plainfield

Over the summer, the federal Food and Drug Administration sent a panel of bureaucrats and scientists into New England at the behest of the Northeastern congressional delegation to hear the concerns and complaints of farmers, food producers and other concerned people. This was in response to final rule-making of the 2013 Food Safety and Modernization Act. I attended the hearing in Hanover and hosted a visit at Edgewater Farm in Plainfield.

There was ample press coverage, and the turnout for the hearing was a full house (about 300 people). They were predominantly farmers from New Hampshire and Vermont who are generally fearful of the onerous documentation and cost that the new rules will bring to their operations. Conservationists, consumers and others were concerned about the damage the law might do to the development of a sustainable local food web, our diversified family-farm-based agriculture and the environment.

Members of the FDA panel were polite, but by afternoon it was apparent that the members were, at best, only mildly interested in hearing what we had to say and more interested in defending their own position.

They clearly didn’t grasp the diversity or complexity of small-scale agriculture, but how could they? None came from a farming background (unless you count being a vice president of Monsanto). In the end, I was left with a hollow feeling in my gut. They appeared to be here because someone told them they had to come; so they came and got some photo ops and went back to D.C.

Net result? They may just as well not have come.

There is one huge point lost amid all the minutiae that surrounds the food-safety law.

Many from the farming community on both sides of the Connecticut River have spent a great deal of time discussing the impact of the law — the water regulations, the huge amount of documentation that will be required for traceability, enforcement components, the proposed “exemptions” (which have more tripwires than a minefield), and on and on. The most important point that doesn’t get enough attention is that our food system is, in reality, pretty safe.

People get sick from food poisoning, some may die, and that is no small tragedy. But on the morning of the hearing in Hanover, the first person to rise to the microphone was Jake Guest of Killdeer Farm in Norwich. He quoted a report from the Centers for Disease Control stating that from 1996 to 2010 less than 1 percent of all food-borne illnesses were attributable to fresh produce, and most of that small fraction could be traced to large, vertically integrated packer-shippers from out West (already under the auspices of food safety management). He surmised that perhaps there wasn’t a problem, and if there was, it probably wasn’t from small Northeastern family farms. So why do the feds feel they have to highly regulate us?

The FDA panelists went into defensive mode. Their response, in hypnotic Washington-speak, had the expected effect: Our eyes glazed over, and we almost forgot why we were in the room. It may cloud the issue, but it doesn’t erase the fact that a tiny fraction of food-borne illnesses are attributable to fresh produce.

The fact is: Your food is pretty safe, and it’s already heavily regulated. If you believe that processed food, shipped from afar in shrink-wrap or bags with government stamps on it has less risk or is better food for you, then you already have plenty of choice and access to that. But don’t deny others the right to have another choice from their local farmers by choking those farmers with government regulations and economic burdens.

Many farmers today belonged to an agricultural youth organization called 4-H when they were growing up, as I did. The club’s motto is: “To Make the Best BETTER.” All the farmers I come in contact with have worked hard at being better farmers and taking better care of their natural resources. They certainly work hard to minimize food risks on their farms. By arguing against the Food Safety and Modernization Act, they are not arguing against food safety or trivializing its importance. In fact, most would welcome any help or education to learn how they may improve food safety on their farms. But as currently written, the law is destructive to diversified, small-scale agriculture. Education, not regulation, is needed.

Trying to “make the best better” in the case of food safety should not be a federally mandated program.

Note: if you have opinions about food safety and would like to comment on the proposed rules, you can do so before the comment period ends Nov. 15 by going to the FDA website.

Pooh Sprague is president of the New Hampshire Small Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association. His family owns Edgewater Farm in Plainfield.