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A Re-Focus on Food Safety

Brian Snyder, PASA
Brian Snyder, Executive Director of PASA

This piece is re-posted with permission from “Write to Farm” by Brian Snyder, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture.  Click here to read the original.

Food Safety Back On the Agenda

If you thought we were done with the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), you can think again. It has been most of a year since the process of responding to newly proposed food safety rules seemed to be smothering every waking moment of our lives, and late December since we heard the good news that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) had “heard” our concerns loud enough to force serious reconsideration of those first drafts of the Produce and Preventive Controls rules.

Fact is, the past eight months have been anything but quiet for those of us following the situation closely. There have been myriad other, lesser known proposed rules to respond to along the way, and several high level meetings behind the scenes aimed at helping FDA to “get it right” in a second go-round of rulemaking as well as the later implementation phase. For most people, the process simply went below the water’s surface, but now it is poised to make a big splash back out in the open, now that it was released earlier this month.

As a reminder, this whole process really started in the spring of 2009 when FSMA first appeared in various forms of proposed federal legislation. So some of us have been at it over 5 years now, making sure at every turn that the needs and interests of family farmers of all sizes, as well as the preferences of an increasingly engaged community of sustainably minded consumers, are taken into account both in the legislative and regulatory phases. Implementation will take several years of diligence too, but right now we may be facing the most crucial point of the whole process, as a second draft of rules takes us closer to a point of no return.

Again, those of us intricately involved in the process were gratified when folks at the FDA demonstrated their inclination to at least listen to our concerns and reconsider the rules that would be imposed on farmers. After all, we had been told in no uncertain terms, back in the beginning, that farmers would not be affected at all. Now it is a foregone conclusion that FSMA will extend its reach in one way or another onto nearly every farm in the nation. With this more straightforward assumption, we will be watching very closely four critical areas of the newly proposed rules in particular, as follows:

Students at Pomona College mixing compost.
Students at Pomona College mixing compost.

Soil amendments: natural vs. chemical fertilizers / use of compost and manure
Farmers need to be allowed to use longstanding sustainable practices, like applying compost and manure to their fields for soil fertility. The rules shouldn’t trample existing guidelines like those under the National Organic Program, which already governs application intervals for natural fertilizers. These rules need to allow farmers to keep using the fertilizers that are best for their crops and soil, and take into account the rapidly developing science highlighting the importance of microbial diversity in healthy, sustainable systems.

Second Wind CSA watering
Irrigating by hand at Second Wind CSA.

Water: quality standards and testing
The rules should measure water quality for farming, not subject farms to criteria intended for recreational water use. Water used to grow food is different than for swimming, and water standards should account for variations in water sources, regional geography and climate, and production systems, rather than subjecting all farmers everywhere to an unworkable one-size-fits-all standard. The rules need a flexible standard that works for the different water systems and sources used on farms of all types, and that won’t create a preference for unnecessary chemical treatment of agricultural water.

Definitions: clarifying the difference between a farm and a food facility
The rules need to clarify “farm” and “facility” definitions to reflect the modern reality of farming and ensure that diversified and innovative farms – particularly those pioneering models for increased access to healthy, local foods – continue to grow and thrive without being overregulated with rules designed for large industrial facilities. The rules should allow for common and safe practices like selling jars of farm-made pickles or including fresh produce from a neighboring farm in a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) share. Otherwise, consumers won’t be able to easily choose the safe, healthy, locally grown foods they desire.

Due process: procedures for withdrawing the qualified exemption for certain farms and mixed-type facilities.
The rules need to ensure basic fairness and due process for farmers and food businesses by revising the process for withdrawing a qualified exemption, such as requiring proof of a problem before withdrawing an exemption, and establishing a clear way to regain that status if it is revoked. The rules shouldn’t unfairly take away farmers’ oversight of their own farms. If the status of a farm is going to be changed because of federal policies, farmers should get a heads up, and have a meaningful opportunity to appeal that decision or forestall it through corrective action.

* * * *

There’s a lot to think about, and a lot at stake as the FSMA process works its way through this next critical phase. Everyone wants safe food, and no one more than the farmers who produce it. But we also know that the science of healthy food systems does in fact point to natural systems of raising food that minimize risk by, well, taking fewer risks along the way, as a key strategy for giving our customers and communities the healthy nourishment they will need for the future.

This is certainly no time to be letting down on our all-important and comprehensive vision for the sustainability of agriculture in this country and elsewhere.
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