The vast fields of strawberries in California or spinach in Arizona bear little resemblance to the small family farms of Maine. But federal regulations proposed to limit food-borne illness treat them too similarly, and would put undue strain on small businesses that have been a Maine success story in the last decade.
The Food Service Modernization Act was signed into law by President Barack Obama in January 2011. The law is now in the rulemaking phase, as the Food and Drug Administration works out the more detailed regulations that will govern food safety at farms. A top FDA official was in Augusta Monday for a forum on the proposed regulations, which focus on the ways produce is typically contaminated — through compromised water, soil and agricultural implements and proximity to animals (“Farmers give FDA official earful,” Aug. 20).
According to the FDA, there were 131 outbreaks of contaminated produce from 1996–2010, leading to more than 14,000 illnesses and 34 deaths. In 2011, there was a multistate outbreak of listeriosis that infected 147 people in 28 states, resulting in 33 deaths. The source was Jensen Farms in Colorado, which supplied cantaloupes to national retailers such as Walmart, Kroger and Safeway.
It is easier for contamination to occur at larger farms, with their complex, massive, mechanized operations. The diligent oversight and stringent rules these operations require don’t apply to smaller farms that sell at roadside stands and local markets. But under the FDA’s proposal, that won’t always be the case.
The regulations as written allow for exemptions based on total sales. But as Rep. Jeffrey Timberlake, R-Turner, owner of Ricker Hill Orchards, pointed out at the meeting, it might not take much for a modest farm to exceed the minimum. Compliance for these farms has been estimated at as much as $30,000 a year, a significant amount in an industry with small profit margins. Partial exemptions are available as well, but those too would prove costly.
Any unnecessary costs would stunt the growth of an industry that is headed in the right direction. The latest five-year census from the U.S. Department of Agriculture — the next one is due in 2014 — showed a 13 percent increase in the number of farms in Maine from 2002 to 2007, as well as a 33 percent increase in sales. In the last few years, farmers markets have become viable economic and social institutions in communities across the state.
The FDA, which is taking comment on the regulations through Nov. 15, should change the proposal to better reflect the realities of agriculture. The minimum sales level for exemptions could be raised, or the kinds of sales could be treated differently. Farms could be differentiated based on method of operation, rather than sales. There is no reason the rules can’t both guard against illness and protect small farms.