As salmonella-tainted pistachios and peanuts fuel the latest in a series of foodborne-illness outbreaks, lawmakers are proposing a flurry of bills aimed at strengthening the country's neglected food safety system.
But while food industry giants that have long opposed new regulations are beginning to change their tune, small-scale producers are growing increasingly vocal about their own concerns.
The problem, they say, is that small farmers, who are most accountable for their food's freshness and health, may suffer the heaviest burden under proposed new food rules.
"A lot of people worry that what's on the books right now is very much geared toward the biggest agricultural players," said Patty Lovera, assistant director of the nonprofit consumer group Food and Water Watch. "It's sort of a one-size-fits-all approach, and when its one size fits all, it's usually written by the big guy."
Bills sponsored by Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.) and Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) contain measures that would ramp up federal oversight of farms and food processors, granting new inspection powers to the Food and Drug Administration, imposing agricultural standards for food crops, and beefing up record-keeping requirements that would help regulators trace a tainted food product to its source.
Large food processors that lost tens of millions of dollars from peanut product recalls and the resulting consumer wariness have begun to voice cautious support for the measures, with Kellogg CEO David Mackay last month telling Congress: "I think anything we can do to strengthen confidence in the food safety system in the U.S. is worth doing" (E&E Daily, March 20).
But small-scale farmers say the big companies have the funds and staff to comply with the rules, and that factory farms that specialize in mass-producing one item are better positioned to comply with mandates to establish food safety plans for every product they sell.
"A small farm is much more likely to grow multiple things and have a diversified approach," Lovera said. "So if they have to take 19 steps for each of those crops, it's much harder for them than a large farm that only grows one or two things."
Small farmers argue that they are already much more accountable to their customers for the quality of their product than are mass-production facilities, and that they will be crushed under the weight of well-meaning laws aimed at large industrial offenders.
Particularly burdensome are proposed standards for record-keeping, they say. While the DeLauro bill would allow for paper record-keeping, the Dingell bill mandates electronic record-keeping. Small farm operations fear that such a rule would involve establishing an expensive and time-consuming system that could put them out of business.
"The law requires that a food safety plan be written up and that the farms keep a record of the way it is administering the plans," said Alexis Baden-Mayer, political director of the Organic Consumers Association, a nonprofit advocacy group. "If it was scale appropriate and was mashed in with organic standards, it would be fine. But it's not."
Examining Calif. program
A new California program that regulates leafy greens illustrates how small farmers who practice sustainable methods can be the unintentional targets of laws aimed at industrial offenders, Baden-Mayer said.
After investigators discovered that a 2006 E. coli outbreak in spinach may have been linked to animal feces on California farmland, the state developed new industry standards that advocate ripping out wild areas on farms to discourage wild animals from entering.
"Organic standards specifically say you are supposed to cultivate the wild land on your farm, and having the area filter water has a lot of benefits," Baden-Mayer said. "One of the principles is just that -- we're going to farm in a way that's not disruptive to nature."
While participating in the regulatory program is voluntary, E. coli-wary retailers are increasingly demanding compliance.
Farmers are seeing the same trend in voluntary FDA and Agriculture Department standards called "good agricultural practices," which include several common-sense measures such as hand-washing but can dock farms points if they sit within 2 miles of livestock.
Critics say the rules unfairly penalize small farmers who grow crops and raise cattle on the same farm, while failing to address what they believe is the root of the E. coli problem -- large, mismanaged feedlots that cram cattle together and spew waste runoff.
But even livestock on small or organic farms can carry pathogenic E. coli, and small producers should not be exempt from such guidelines, said James Gorny, executive director of the Postharvest Technology Research and Information Center at the University of California, Davis.
"Certainly, the risk increases with the number of animals per square mile. But there's no free ride just because you're a small producer," Gorny said. "Organic producers feel like there's a halo around their products with all aspects of food safety, and that's just not the case with microbial hazards."
Do regulators understand small farms?
Still, critics say regulators suffer from a lack of understanding of small farm operations, and that it shows when rules are drafted.
"The process of establishing these guidelines and turning them into standards that must be met to enter certain markets has been a purely technical one, and has not included organic or diversified farms as part of the discussion," said Russell Libby, executive director of the Maine Organic Farmers & Gardeners Association, in a newsletter.
Maine requires growers to meet the FDA's suggested guidelines if they want to sell their produce to the school lunch program.
Gorny said the proposed congressional food safety bills are intentionally broad to allow flexibility in the way they are implemented. Small farmers will have plenty of opportunity to weigh in during FDA public comment sessions before any specific regulations are set, he said.
Congressional aides say the bills are aimed at big industrial producers and will not apply to small farmers who sell only locally or to certified organic farmers who are regulated by the USDA.
But while many small-farm advocates support some of the increased safety measures in the bills, they say the language gives too little weight to a farming operation's scale -- a critical flaw that could unintentionally put them out of business.
"We don't think that if the bill were passed as it is, it would be implemented in a way that would harm small farms," Baden-Mayer said. "But why leave these things to chance?"