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Editorial: Rewriting Food Rules

FDA Wisely Takes a Second Look

Farmers and food producers in the Upper Valley and across the nation received a bit of good news last month when federal officials said they were planning to delay implementation of new food safety regulations.

Just before Christmas, the Food and Drug Administration’s deputy commissioner, Michael Taylor, announced that as a result of feedback from small and large farmers across the country, the agency realized that “significant changes must be made” before new rules implementing the Food Safety Modernization Act could be put in place.

Upper Valley farmers had given Taylor an earful last August during a gathering in Hanover where more than 150 people showed up to express fears that the new regulations would be financially punitive and add unnecessary layers of oversight for small producers who are already taking extra care to ensure food safety.

As a result of those comments and others nationwide, Taylor said, the regulations — the most sweeping in decades — would be revised by the end of June and further input would be solicited before they take effect in June 2015, just in time for growing season.

The Food Safety Modernization Act was passed by Congress in 2010 and signed into law by President Obama in January 2011. It assigns to the FDA the delicate balancing act of writing and implementing rules designed both to keep food safe for American consumers and be workable for producers.

At least in the eyes of small farmers, the FDA got it terribly wrong on the first go-round. Such regulations as requiring a lengthy waiting period between applying manure to fields and planting them would force most New England and organic farmers to miss an entire growing season. And extensive, regular testing of irrigation water as well as fencing off fields where food is grown from wild animals might work on industrial farms, but were deemed impractical by small growers.

Foodborne diseases affect about 48 million people, or one in six Americans, each year. Of those, 128,000 are hospitalized and 3,000 die, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The outbreaks are serious health risks, and officials believe they are preventable.

Small farmers, as much as anyone, realize the dangers of selling contaminated food. For the most part, they employ best food-safety practices. After all, they eat what they grow, and an outbreak on their farms would not only endanger their lives and those of their customers, but also would put them out of business.

Stricter food regulations are clearly needed, and the new rules promise to strengthen the food safety systems by enabling the FDA to focus more on preventing problems than reacting after the fact. They also will give the FDA new enforcement powers that are designed to achieve higher rates of compliance and the ability to respond to and contain outbreaks once they occur.

However, after traveling to more than 20 states and talking with farmers, ranging from those who work small family farms to those who oversee large operations, Taylor and other FDA officials concluded that a broad-brush approach to the regulations wasn’t going to work. So, the FDA is taking a step back and is modifying the rules to make them more sensitive to the size of farming operations and more accurately reflect actual farming methods.

“Many of the regulations just don’t fit with the way we farm in New England,” Pooh Sprague told the Valley News last month after the FDA announced the delay. Sprague runs Edgewater Farm in Plainfield and is the president of the New Hampshire Vegetable and Berry Growers Association. He led the charge to get farmers in the Twin States to speak out about the shortcomings of the regulations.

Although the initial efforts showed results, Sprague is encouraging farmers and food producers to keep a close eye on the revised rules and to give the FDA pertinent comments about the regulations.

We also encourage Upper Valley food producers to remain vigilant and make their views known.

The FDA seems to be listening.