Is Congress aiming to kill organic farms?
The blogosphere is all aflap over the introduction of HR 875, also known as the Food Safety Modernization Act of 2009. A simple Google search on the bill number turns up a number of angry bloggers, shouting loudly that Grandma's vegetable garden and small organic farms are going to be 'criminalized' if this bill passes.
A trusted Twitter friend asked me to pass along the negatives of this plan, but the more I looked, the less I believed it is as evil as the current groundswell would have you think. Let's begin with this: The FDA has a horrible track record when it comes to food safety and inspection. Think peanuts and salmonella for the most recent example. It's not unreasonable for Congress to address the question of food safety in a meaningful way, particularly since contamination of our food supply is a national security as well as a public health issue.
After reading the entire text of the bill, here's what I believe it does:
- Moves food safety and inspection duties from the FDA to a new agency under the Department of Health and Human Services to be known as the (wait for it...) Food Safety Administration.
- Defines the facilities covered under the Act and subject to food safety regulations
- Requires unannounced inspection of farms, ranches and other food production facilities.
- Requires adoption of best practice standards set by the agency for food safety.
- Requires registration by food production facilities with the Food Safety Administration
I'm not finding anything that would kill or otherwise harm organic farms or Grandma's vegetable garden, try as I might. With that said, some of the language, particularly in the definitions is loose, and could be fixed simply by adding the clause "for commercial sale.". That would exclude Grandma without unduly harming small farmers.
The more I dug, it became clear that most of the storm around this issue is more political than economic. Those opposed to government oversight will object to anything that calls for more of it; those who are not, won't.
We've tried the self-regulating food safety route. It brought us tainted spinach, peanuts, and shellfish. Calling for best practices standards and regular inspections is not the end of the small farmer, nor the end of organic farming.
Those strawberries at the top? They're grown about a mile from my house, in fields that look like this:
Strawberries are the primary crop of our little corner of the west coast. Oxnard is known for its strawberries like Gilroy is known for its garlic. We have big farms and small farms, commercial farms, organic farms, and my in-laws have their own vegetable garden. Food safety matters to us, too. It should matter to everyone. Food safety regulation won't kill organic farming, co-ops, or home-grown food. Not dealing with the issue of food safety just might kill one of us, though.