If you reach back, way back, into the corners of your mind, you may recall the Food Safety and Modernization Act. It was passed and signed by President Obama back in 2009. The aim was to completely overhaul the production of food in our country. It most definitely will.
Up until now, the FDA has not touched the regulations pertaining to on farm production of food. We have some voluntary “guidelines” available, but nothing concrete. I briefly touched on this before, but let me recap where things have been…and where they seem to be headed.
First, the FDA has handed out Generally Accepted Practices, or GAPs, pertaining to 3 specific commodities: leafy greens, tomatoes, and melons. (As indicated by the FDA, most of this will become mandatory for all farms, not just those commodities.) As of right now, these documents are simply draft guidance documents. More importantly, they’re voluntary.
Voluntary is a good thing here, folks. A quick perusal of the documents will have you realize that these “guidance” documents offer absolutely no substantive guidance on how to implement these standards. For example, try this soon-to-be regulation from the tomato document:
“Taking measures to minimize wildlife presence such as using barriers or other deterrents, minimizing wildlife attractants and opportunities for harborage, redirecting wildlife to non-sensitive areas, and employing other methods identified by wildlife experts.”
This is pretty much a lawyer’s dream. What the heck does “taking measures” mean? How much is enough? How little isn’t enough? How many “wildlife experts” do we need to consult? (I won’t even discuss the idea of keeping all wildlife out of your field…they do realize we grow this stuff outside; don’t they?) The reality check here is that the FDA’s documents, which they now want to finalize and make into enforceable regulations, offer absolutely no guidance as to how they should be implemented.
I wrote a lengthy paper on this for my honors class in law school. My adviser had worked at FDA at one point. While he admitted that there was little to no actual guidance in the documents, he thought that was completely acceptable. After all, the FDA doesn’t know enough to tell you how much is too much, or how little is too little. We just know that wildlife can spread food borne illness….so you should try to keep them out of the field. According to the FDA, that standard is enough to meet the “science-based requirement” under the new legislation. We know it happens, but we can’t really give you any measurements, so it’s science!
That’s nice. Try telling that to the farmer who is trying to figure out how in the heck he’s supposed to comply with such a regulation. How many farms will voluntarily continue to grow these commodities if they have no idea what they’re supposed to do?
Of course, there’s more.
The new regulations are also filled to the brim with red tape and paperwork. If you’re a farmer, you know how much paperwork has to be filled out and sent into the state and federal government. Have you ever tried applying for crop insurance? I’ve watched my dad outline, highlight, and label hundreds of acres worth of maps every single year. Now, the government wants even more (read: overhead costs).
First, the so-called guidance documents above provide sections which require documentation of such obscure things as washing your hands. Take this from the tomato section:
“If tomatoes are handled with bare hands, hand washing procedures should be documented. If gloves are utilized, a procedure for glove use should be established, followed, and documented.”
Great. Now we can’t even go into our own field without gloves on our hands. And if we do, we have to write down and report to the government every time we washed our hands. Do they want to know if the hand washing was accompanied by another activity too? (By the way, there is, of course, also a list to let you know which gloves are acceptable for use.)
Granted, we usually wear gloves to pick tomatoes simply because your hands will get all green and gross. But can you imagine the bounds of paperwork necessary to document hand washing? We never hired outside help, but what happens if your farm hires additional workers? Is the farmer supposed to follow them around all day to make sure hands are being washed and then it’s written down? And this is just one of the new regulations that requires paperwork.
Second, the newly proposed rules, which come apart from the so-called guidance documents, are also going to require a food safety plan for every farm. “The two rules proposed by the FDA would require food producers to develop and enact comprehensive plans to prevent contamination of their products. Those plans would be submitted to the FDA for approval and enforcement.” (Source: The Hill)
So, basically, what the FDA wants is this: Come up with a plan for your farm, based on the so-called guidance documents. No, we don’t have the details of what is necessary for you to be in compliance, but come up with a plan anyway. Send it over to us. We’ll then look at it and decide if it’s good enough. No, we can’t tell how the basis for deciding what works and what doesn’t. We’ll just know it when we see it. We can then let you know if you’re ready to begin farming. But we’ll hold onto this plan and occasionally stop by the farm to see if you’re doing it right….whatever right means.
Folks, look, I don’t want to see people get sick from eating fresh produce. No one does. Yes, it happens. Yes, if we can do something about it, we should. But this plan just isn’t viable. Not only do we not have actual regulations for farmers to follow (because the science is “fuzzy”), we’re also burdening our family farms with so much paper work and red tape that it will make it very costly and difficult to even get started. I would suspect the price of your tomatoes, leafy greens, and melons will be going up, up, up…
Besides, if you consider where the outbreaks occur, you’ll usually find that they happen when the owners just no longer care and get sloppy. The outbreak from melons last summer was this exact situation. There was standing water left all over the dirty packinghouse. They didn’t care anymore. They had let the farm slip. If they don’t care enough to keep their customers, friends, and family safe how in the world do we think they’re going to follow some intangible ideas about food safety? We also see this happen with field workers, regardless of how much safety training they’ve been given. There is also a high rate of this stuff from organic farms.
In our area we’re already seeing a decrease in the number of roadside stands. Despite what the FDA might be telling us, I don’t see it. Big farm markets that have been around for years and years and years (we celebrated 26 years last summer) are closing down. Not only is the economy dragging, but this just isn’t worth it. Not when we can make other viable choices.
Our job as American farmers is to provide affordable, safe, and quality food for our consumers. I don’t see how the newly proposed regulations are accomplishing that goal. They simply add expense, paperwork, and fuzzy science to the regulatory burden that most farmers, who already do what they can to keep their produce safe, already carry.
(By the way, if you want to read the full version of the newly proposed rules, you can do so here. Warning: it is exceptionally long!)