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New food safety bill could crush local food movement

by Chris Hinyub, published

Next week the Senate will vote on a measure that could potentially extinguish California's local food movement. Lobbied for by multinational agribusiness giants such as Cargill and Monsanto, as well as supported by the pharmaceutical industry, The Food Safety Modernization Act would impose financially crippling and practically useless regulations on family farms and small-scale food processors according to opponents.

The bill will require all food growers, regardless of size to keep accessible records, have more accountable monitoring and traceability protocols, and impose a blanket $500 registration fee. This means costly radio frequency identification (RFID chips) implanted in livestock as well as (according to the language of the bill) “science based” and “best practices” in agriculture will be mandated.

These practices can be arbitrarily determined by the FDA deputy commissioner for foods, Michael Taylor. Interestingly enough, before Taylor found himself in a leading position at the Food and Drug Administration, he went from being Monsanto's attorney, key in the deregulation of genetically modified organisms, to that company's vice president.

Small farmers, organic producers and those who thrive through local farmers' markets fear they will be faced with untenable costs of compliance to a plan they claim won't do anything to improve food safety. As their operations aren't, and never have been, the cause of food safety scandals. Of course, any increase in operational costs will naturally be transferred directly to farmers' markets and Community Supported Agriculture consumers.

The real problem, small farm advocates say, is the large-scale producers whose facilities have been the predominant source of foodborne illness outbreaks. Whether in the form of melamine laced milk, salmonella infected peanut butter, or E. coli on spinach, industrial farmers have all been to blame. In this light, it makes little sense to implement a “one-size-fits-all” oversight policy which could potentially plow under local and organic farmers through unfair costs and unfeasible reporting standards. 

Some opponents go as far as to say the broad authority the measure grants the FDA would not only undermine local food by making farmers' markets cost prohibitive, but would actually eradicate organic standards, decreasing food safety and human health.

The food safety act doesn't guarantee any protections for organic farming practices. The FDA could impose standards which mandate (amongst other agribusiness mainstays) the use of highly toxic pesticides, hormones, GMOs and food irradiation practices on any and all growers.

On Wednesday, U.S. Senator Jon Tester (D-Montana) introduced two amendments which he hopes will protect locally driven food markets from the most onerous portions of the legislation.

“We’re really taking a punch at people who don’t need to have a punch taken at them,” Tester said at a press conference. While he agreed that food safety laws needed to be tightened, he refuses to support a law which will jeopardize small, organic growers and farmers' markets. State and local regulations which already apply to small producers are adequate according to the Senator.

The Tester amendments would ensure exemptions on trace back and record keeping requirements for producers with adjusted gross incomes of less than $500,000 a year. Also exempt would be producers selling directly to consumers, restaurants, hotels, institutions, and through farmers' markets.

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