Saturday, March 28, 2009

Should Small Food Producers Be Exempt From Regulation?

Over on Marler's Blog is a guest post by the Cornucopia Institute:

Guest Blog - Cornucopia Institute - Supporting Viable Federal Oversight over Corporate Agribusiness - Local/Organic Farming: Part of the Solution, Not Part of the Problem!

... which addresses the proposed legislation intended to improve the food safety system.

There was a part I found unsettling:
"Some small-scale farmers, including members of the Amish community, will find mandatory electronic record keeping requirements onerous and should be able to access alternatives, or be exempted due to scale."
Some small-scale farmers "should be exempted due to scale?"

My comment:
In the popular Reading Terminal Market (shown) in downtown Philadelphia is a stall run by Amish (to use your example). As a consumer, how do I know, and should I care, that a tomato or a carton of eggs from a bin at the Amish stall was exempted from meeting requirements that a tomato or carton of eggs from a bin at the stall 50 feet away had to meet?

I think ... When you choose to sell a product, you agree to the terms that selling entails. And there should be basic* terms that apply to everyone who chooses to sell food.

When you choose to drive a car, you agree to get a license and to demonstrate knowledge of driving and basic traffic laws. We don't exempt someone from licensure if they say they don't drive very much.

* As you pointed out, minimum food safety standards could include "manure use, water quality, employee hygiene, sanitation and animal control, temperature controls, and nutrients on the farm."
What do you think? Do you think small food producers should be exempt from regulation?
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Photo of Philadelphia's Reading Terminal Market by talula815 at Panoramio.

11 comments:

RB said...

I thought the Marler Blog was excellent and proposed constructive action regarding the pending food safety bill on in Congress.

Regarding your question. Small producers shouldn't be exempt from regulation. However, a one-size-fit all regulator structure that favors huge agribusinesses should not be adopted. The regulations must be flexible enough so small farmers and organic farmers are not unduly burdened. After all, its the large agribusinesses that are causing the vast amount of the food safety problems. They shouldn't benefit from regulations that run their smaller competition out of business.

It is also the small farmers who are most concerned about food quality and sustainable environmentally responsible farming. If the large agribusinesses had the same attitude as most small farmers, food safety wouldn't be an issue.

Bill said...

What if we exempted to some degree "face to face" sales where the grower sells directly to the consumer?

Bix said...

I was at an outdoor grower's market today. There was someone selling raw chicken and turkey parts from the back of her pick-up truck. Another was selling her own raw milk goat cheese.

I don't know if these sellers practice safe food handling. I don't know the condition of their farms and prep areas. Glove use, washing after cigarette use or bathroom visits, safe temps, sanitary equipment, clean storage rooms, pest control - I'm guessing that safe food handling is practiced, but I don't know. And I don't know why anyone who sells food, even face-to-face with consumers, should not experience some level of oversight.

mitzi said...

As Marler pointed out, a lot of the contamination happens at the processing and distribution levels. Regulation of the farmers will not solve this. The farmers of poultry and dairy are already heavily regulated. They tell you how many light bulbs to have in the barn, what kind, and where. The dairy barn has to have its own restroom with shower, even if the house with a designated restroom off the mudroom is only a few yards away. The barn also has to have its own driveway, completely separate from the household one. It really prohibits small operators from getting into the business unless they are willing to go into devastating debt, and creates huge advantages for big, deep-pocketed agribusinesses. Basic hygiene is one thing- requiring Amish to maintain expensive computer records and small farms to have huge, complicated, costly facilities when something much simpler would do is entirely another. All the sellers of raw meat from trucks at the Farmer's market I frequent, sell it frozen solid in packaging from the slaughterhouse. I cook meat properly, so I don't worry about it.

Bix said...

Hi mitzi, thank you for visiting.

I agree that processing is a hazardous step. The women who sold their chickens and cheese also processed them, so it's reassuring to know there are federal laws that regulate them (I didn't know that there were, Mitzi, thank you. I'll have to ask next time I go.)

If the small producers at the market are already heavily regulated and inspected, why is there concern about legislation? (It says they can keep paper records.)

Matt said...

There is a great book by Joel Salatin called "Everything I want to do is Illegal" that addresses all of the issues with small scale farms having to apply large-scale regulations. Joel argues that he can slaughter a chicken and cow on the farm cleaner than any processing facility. And he's right, there is nothing that kills bacteria better than the sun (at least that you can eat).

I agree with RB in that if everyone thought like Joel Salatin, we wouldn't have as many food issues. That being said, we need some sort of regulation for smaller producers that does not place a burden on them.

Bix said...

I do not see the harm, and I see the benefit, in having people who sell food register their business, keep records, and take a class in food safety. If the cost for registration is a problem, that can be fixed.

I don't know anyone who has discussed food safety legislation rationally who hasn't arrived at the need for scalable requirements (for producers), and risk-based oversight (for the government).

Risk-based oversight means that more resources (i.e. inspections) are focused where risk is greater. Risk is greater in, for example, high-distribution networks (Peanut Corp.), not in low-distribution networks (one neighbor selling his corn to surrounding neighbors). Risk-based oversight is smart, lean (cost-efficient), and fair. The legislation proposed is risk-based.

This controversy has shown me why, one reason at least, there aren't better food safety laws.

ElDoubleV said...

So why don’t we limit the amount of damages that a small producer could be sued for. Say your child dies from e-coli or Listeria or some other bacterial or viral contaminate that they got from a local dealer selling their wares. After all they didn’t mean it and their hearts are in the right place. The parent with the dead child could take comfort from the fact that the error that caused the death wasn’t intentional but was just one of those things. Does that sound right?

I go to my local Wegman’s and look at the cheese display and I see Cracker Barrel cheese made by Kraft. I see Saga brand blue cheese made by a not as large company. I see a French Roquefort cheese imported from a French manufacturer and I see a local Goat cheese manufactured in limited quantities by a very small farm probably less than 10 miles from the store. Should I assume the regulations for quality and safety are different for these cheeses? Wouldn’t I expect that the laws hold equally for all of the cheeses in the display? Wouldn’t I assume the cheese is kept refrigerated and that the refrigerated display is inspected by some local regulatory group? Why would one cheese be held to different standards than the other, when they are sold out of the same display, in the same store? That doesn’t make a bit of sense to me. Shouldn’t I expect a cheese sold a farmers market be regulated the same as one sold at Wegman’s? If not why then would Wegman’s, Kraft, or Saga be penalized for being successful and selling a lot of cheese. I agree with the high-risk, low-risk argument but I expect any food I buy to be regulated for safety equally. Bacteria and Viruses don’t care about good intentions. Any company that puts out processed foods for sale for profit is liable for damages that they cause. If you are going to enter the marketplace with a product you accept the risks and costs of doing business.

Dr. Mel said...

To me, the issue with small-farm regulation is prohibitive costs that easily could put them out of business. If there were financial assistance that would allow small farmers, who already struggle to make ends meet, to meet the new regulations and record-keeping, then I say go for it. I guess I echo Bix's comment of 30th March. As to what Bill said on the 28th, if we exempt (to whatever degree) face-to-face sales, then it becomes a case of caveat emptor, which is ok. No one is forced to buy directly from a farmer, but a lot of people are forced--by circumstance--to buy at the supermarket.

Bix said...

ElDoubleV, I can hear you on the floor of the Senate arguing these bills. Very convincing. ("Just one of those things.")

You make an interesting point, one I hadn't thought of. If you fail to regulate some businesses and not others, you're penalizing those that become successful. There does seem to be a double standard there.

Most of the food in this country doesn't come from farmers' markets, isn't local and organic (less than 3%). The people who are arguing against these bills are arguing against better food safety for most Americans.

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"The e-mails do nothing to undermine the very strong scientific consensus . . . that tells us the Earth is warming, that warming is largely a result of human activity," Jane Lubchenco, who heads the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, told a House committee. She said that the e-mails don't cover data from NOAA and NASA, whose independent climate records show dramatic warming.