Successes to Celebrate in Food Safety Legislation, Hard Work Ahead in Rule-Making and Education

      Posted On: January 11, 2011

On December 21, 2010, the House of Representatives voted 215-144 to pass the Senate version of the Food Safety Modernization Act, ending weeks of procedural wrangling, and sending the bill to the President’s desk for signature. This is a milestone in the saga of food safety legislation that started over a year ago, after repeated national outbreaks in everything from tomatoes to spinach to peanuts to eggs evidenced severe flaws in FDA’s paradigm, if not in the national-global food system itself.  While the legislation that just passed is by no means perfect (what is?), FMC celebrates the passing of the Food Safety Modernization Act as a success for farmers markets.

Late this summer, sensing that some of the proposals for food safety legislation and regulations could have the unintended consequences for smaller farmers selling at farmers markets, FMC joined the Food Safety Task Force, convened by the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition. This group was influential in crafting the language of the Tester-Hagan amendment, which provides scale and risk-appropriate terms for smaller farms selling more than 50% of their products directly to consumers within 275 miles. FMC also helped write A Sustainable Agriculture Perspective on Food Safety, the tenets of which helped in advocacy and negotiation around this provision.
Over time, the law will require the FDA to increase inspection of food processing plants in this country and also plants in other countries where food is prepared for export to the United States. Low-risk plants in this country must be inspected within seven years after the bill becomes law. After that, they must be inspected once every five years. The law will require the number of inspections of overseas facilities to double each year over the next five years.
Important provisions in the bill relevant to farmers markets, and their original sponsors, include:

  • Senator Sanders (I-VT) providing FDA authority to either exempt farms engaged in low or no risk processing or co-mingling activities from new regulatory requirements or to modify particular regulatory requirements for such farming operations.
  • Senator Bennet (D-CO) to reduce unnecessary paperwork and excess regulation required under the preventative control plan and the produce standards sections of the bill, including instructions to FDA to minimize the number of different standards that apply to separate foods, to make requirements scale appropriate, and to prohibit FDA from requiring farms and other food facilities to hire outside consultants to write food safety plans.
  • Senator Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) to provide for a USDA-delivered competitive grants program for food safety training for farmers, small processors and wholesalers, with a priority on small and mid-scale farms.
  • Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA) to strip the bill of wildlife-threatening enforcement against “animal encroachment” of farms and require FDA to apply sound science to any requirements that might impact wildlife and wildlife habitat.
  • Senator Sherrod Brown (D-OH) to exempt farmers from extensive and expensive traceability and recordkeeping requirements if they sell food directly to consumers or to grocery stores, to allow labeling that preserves the identity of the farm through to the consumer to satisfy traceability requirements, and to in most cases limit farm recordkeeping to the first point of sale when the product leaves the farm.

To see how your representative voted on December 21st, click here to see a district by district map.
Many in the fresh produce industry, who initially supported the legislation, turned on their heels once these provisions were included in the Senate bill, and fought vociferously against the legislation, particularly the Tester-Hagan language.  In a recent article in the United Fresh newsletter, Senior Vice President of Public Policy Robert Guenther said that the amendment “threatens the health and well-being of a nation of consumers by exempting some producers and processors based only on the size of their business, their geographic location, or to whom they sell their products.”
FMC believes that minimizing risk is a shared responsibility, the most important feature of which is trust. Localized food systems, the keystones of which are farmers markets, are built upon actual face-to-face relationships and transparency, engendering trust and widening the flow of information between producer and consumer. But, as the legislation makes clear, farmers who qualify under the Tester-Hagan language must “walk the walk” by providing documentation (such as licenses, inspection reports, or other evidence that the farm is in compliance with existing State, local, county, or other applicable non-Federal food safety laws).  The farm must also prominently and conspicuously display the name and address of farm/facility on its label.  For foods without a label, then by poster, sign, or placard, at the point of purchase or, in the case of Internet sales, in an electronic notice, or in the case of sales to stores and restaurants, on the invoice. This is good business and in keeping with ensuring the credibility of local food as the safest and healthiest available.

FMC also encourages farmers markets to develop and put in place guidelines for food sampling,
cooking demonstrations, hand washing amenities, and live animals. In this spirit, we invite folks to watch Betsy Bihn and Brigitte Moran in the archived webinar Food Safety First: GAPs and Food Safety Issues for Farmers Markets, originally hosted by FMC in August 2009.

So, what’s next?

Over the next 18 months, FDA will be tasked with setting nationwide standards for growing and harvesting produce, with the goal of reducing the chances of contamination in the fields.  The job at that point is to ensure rules and guidance from FDA and USDA captures the intent of the legislative improvements offering alternatives for eligible farmers market producers. In the week leading up to the Christmas holiday, FMC was awarded a small grant by the Ben & Jerry’s Foundation that will support education and advocacy around food safety issues, and enable our future collaboration with the NSAC Food Safety Task Force.  This will allow FMC to keep its members informed and mobilize them to submit comments on rules implementing this new law.

Stay tuned and join today to support our work to stand up for farmers market food safety.