Today’s New York Times included an article titled “Small farms fear bearing brunt of new food safety regulations” that caught my eye. The headline alone was enough to make me cringe, but reading the actual content made it even worse. Here is a taste of what you will read:
But small-scale farmers say the big companies have the funds and staff to comply with the rules, and that factory farms that specialize in mass-producing one item are better positioned to comply with mandates to establish food safety plans for every product they sell.
“A small farm is much more likely to grow multiple things and have a diversified approach,” Lavera (Assistant Director, Food and Water Watch) said. “So if they have to take 19 steps for each of those crops, it’s much harder for them than a large farm that only grows one or two things.”
Small farmers argue that they are already much more accountable to their customers for the quality of their product than are mass-production facilities, and that they will be crushed under the weight of well-meaning laws aimed at large industrial offenders.
As my post yesterday highlighted, the food marketing system (a.k.a., industrial food) has been systematically shifting more of every dollar spent by consumers on food into their pockets, especially since 1980. Perhaps this wouldn’t be so bad if they were producing food products positively contributing to our health, the environment, and regional economic development. That is not happening, at least not in most cases. Now, as if to add insult to injury, industrial food may be jumping on the opportunity to further burden smaller farms through new food safety regulations.
The challenge is how to ensure food safety for all consumers without severely limiting the diversity of where our food comes from. Given the complexity of the industrial food system, which includes many steps and lots of hands touching mass produced food, there is no doubt that food safety is a very real problem that needs more regulation. But smaller farms, especially those that sell direct to consumers or one-step removed through regional distributors, do not present the same problems, so it makes no sense to impose on them something designed for the more complex system. Again, from the New York Times article:
“The law requires that a food safety plan be written up and that the farms keep a record of the way it is administering the plans,” said Alexis Baden-Mayer, political director of the Organic Consumers Association, a nonprofit advocacy group. “If it was scale appropriate and was mashed in with organic standards, it would be fine. But it’s not.”
Do smaller producers represent risks to consumer? I think it would be naive to say they don’t. Do they need to be regulated and monitored regarding food safety? I believe most people giving this question some thought would say yes, but only if such regulations are designed for the local and regional food systems that many smaller farms operate within.
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