After all the big E. coli and salmonella contamination scares (spinach, eggs, lunch meat, etc.,) a law that makes it easier for the FDA to monitor food safety sounds like a no-brainer. Senate Bill 510, also known as the Food Safety Modernization Act, is currently being debated in the Senate, and is expected to be voted on today. It’s supposed to strengthen the power of the FDA. But many fear it will hurt the local foods movement.

Take Judith McGeary, for instance, a small livestock farmer in Texas and the founder and executive director of the Farm and Ranch Freedom Alliance. She spoke with CHOW to explain why the bill overlooks the special needs of small farmers and doesn’t really address the big problems with our food system: It’s centralized, gargantuan, and hard to track.

So why would anyone protest a bill that sets out to improve the safety of what we eat?

One of the problems is that the only type of farming the FDA understands is large-scale industrial monocropping. The FDA has talked about setting specific standards for different crops [with Senate Bill 510], which is not a big deal if you’re growing acres of just one crop. But the farm that I buy my food from may grow 100 different crops in the same 10-acre farm.

That sounds like a lot of paperwork and headaches: The more crops you grow, the more rules and regulations you have to wrap your mind around.

I’m an attorney and even I can’t figure this stuff out. Most people give up and hire a consultant, and that’s extremely expensive.

You’ve compared this bill with HACCP, a food safety management system that many people blame for the death of small slaughterhouses in the last decade. Do you foresee a similar thing happening with small farms and jam makers and such, if this bill passes?

The regulators are used to thinking on an industrial scale. [For instance,] if you have a bacterial problem, irradiate [the food,] or put it in a chlorine bath. But there is a big difference between someone making 100 jars of jam and Smucker’s, and there shouldn’t be one standard for both. If there is, the same thing will happen to [small] local food businesses as happened to the small and medium-sized slaughterhouses: They’ll go out of business, they’ll never go into business in the first place, and those that remain will raise their prices. [Editor’s note: the version of the bill passed by the Senate on Monday included the Tester-Hagan amendment, which made provisions for smaller farms. Learn more about Tester-Hagan on the Farm and Ranch Freedom Alliance site].

But to play devil’s advocate, isn’t food safety more important than a small business’s needs? Wouldn’t hard-core safety measures, no matter how expensive to implement, ultimately cut down on food poisoning and improve public health?

The bill does nothing to decentralize food production, and all you have to do is look at the spinach and egg scares to see how much they were about centralized systems. That one farm [with contaminated spinach] sold that spinach to a central processor, where it was mixed with lots of other spinach, and then bagged up and sold under 34 brand names all over the country.

Yes, but perhaps if that original one farm had been following stricter safety regulations, like the ones being proposed, there wouldn’t have been any contaminated spinach to begin with.

Food can get contaminated anywhere. In your home kitchen, in a restaurant.

Or at the processing plant, the packaging company, the grocery store …

If that same contaminated spinach had been sold at a farmers’ market, it would have been [more easily] identified [and tracked] in a few days. The spinach would have been sold to fewer people all in the same geographic area. When food is grown, sold, and consumed in a small area, those same widespread outbreaks just can’t occur.

To follow the Food Safety Modernization Act and for more info, visit the Bill Summary & Status site at the Library of Congress.

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