When food as benign as spinach turns deadly, it may be time to revamp the country's food-safety regulations. The catch? Ensuring that small-scale farmers don't topple under new regulatory red tape.

In response to the recent food recalls that caused peanut butter, tomatoes, spinach and pistachios to be swept off grocery store shelves, a handful of food-safety bills are now circulating through Congress. Two of them, the Food Safety Modernization Act and Food and Drug Administration Globalization Act (H.R. 875 and H.R. 759, respectively), are causing particular consternation due to their broad language. Despite the bills' best intentions, critics say regulators don't understand farm operations and are drafting laws that place an unnecessary financial and bookkeeping burden on small-scale farmers.

Alan Roberts — owner of Roberts Roost, a five-acre farm in east-central Ohio that produces mixed salad greens, vegetables and some poultry for about 150 people in his community — has been poring through each bill's legalese to understand how it could impact his farm.

The problem, Roberts says, is that most of the proposed bills consolidate power into a single bureaucracy and increase safety requirements and regulation without differentiating between small and industrial-size farms.

"Because most small farms process (wash and bag) produce on the farm, they would become subject to the same inspections and regulatory requirements as large processing facilities," Roberts says, referring to H.R. 875. "Most of us can't afford to build the required facilities and would be forced out of business."

A registered processing facility needs to be enclosed, washable, have a bathroom, a separate hand-washing sink and refrigeration. "It would basically need to be a commercial kitchen without the cooking equipment," Roberts says.

Rep. Rosa DeLauro, a Connecticut Democrat and chairwoman of the Appropriations subcommittee who sponsored the Food Safety Modernization Act (H.R. 875), says the intent of the legislation was not to place new burdens on community farms. Rather, she says, it's designed to make sure that large industrial food processors — such as the Peanut Corporation of America's processing plant in Georgia that was responsible for the salmonella outbreak that killed nine people and sickened hundreds more — do not produce unsafe foods.

"The focus is on producers who pose the greatest risk — large producers where the problem is centered, not small farmers or organic farmers," DeLauro says.

Despite the best of intentions, the language in both H.R. 875 and H.R. 759 is written so it takes a one-size-fits-all regulatory approach, with increased traceability requirements in H.R. 759 going so far as to require an electronic recording system, another factor that could stress the finances and time of small producers.

Most people agree, however, that the food-safety system needs reforming. "There's a need for both additional authority and need to strengthen existing laws," says Jean Halloran, director of food-policy initiatives for Consumers Union, the publisher of Consumer Reports. "There have been huge resource cutbacks and now the FDA only inspects each processing facility on average of once every 10 years. It needs a legal mandate requiring that they're inspected at least once a year."

A recent Consumers Union poll found that two-thirds of Americans want the FDA to inspect domestic and foreign food-processing facilities at least once a month.

Currently, no law governs how frequently the FDA must perform inspections. The agency uses a risk-based approach for inspections of food-manufacturing facilities, inspecting high-risk facilities with greater frequency than low-risk facilities. Even then, the FDA delegates most food-processing inspections to state regulators that lack the FDA's funding.

Peanut Butter Corporation of America's Blakely, Ga., processing facility — responsible for the biggest food recall in American history — only processes 2 percent of peanut products in the United States, highlighting the need to include most food-processing facilities in any new regulations. The plant was last inspected by the FDA in 2001, before the company actually started making peanut butter.

"The bills could probably exclude farms that sell directly to the consumer through roadside stands and other direct grower-client relationships," Halloran says. "But companies that use a middleman, like the Blakely plant, need to be included."

Besides annual inspections, the Consumer Union also calls for mandatory reporting for food contamination, and for all food-processing facilities to have well-developed food-safety plans.

If you ask someone who supports a ground-up approach to food safety — like Howard Garrett, an organic-gardening guru who's best known by his pseudonym, the "Dirt Doctor" — you'll likely hear that the government should develop ways to support smaller, more localized, more diverse food production and avoid industrial food processing, which Garrett says is causing the problems.

"While there needs to be improvement in some areas of regulation, it needs not to hurt the small farmers, but support them," Garrett says. "If everyone was doing small, diversified, organic production, there wouldn't be a question about health."

H.R. 759 is currently in the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, while some of the wording in H.R. 875 is being reworked to clarify the bill's intention. 

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