11 June 2010

Senate Bill 510: Another Small Farmer's Perspective

The local food community is abuzz with the debate over Senate Bill 510, aka the Federal Food Safety Modernization Act.  Senator Jon Tester of Montana has offered amendments to ensure that food safety rules don’t put family farmers out of business.  Below is a message in support of these amendments from PFM vendor Tom Denison of Denison Farms:

I support the Tester Amendment and believe most of  Oregon’s market vendors and shoppers would too if they are aware of it.

“How can we be against food safety?” you might ask.  The truth is that farmers market produce is inherently safer than shipped produce because it is fresher.  Clever slogans like “bacteria don’t care what size farm they are on” or “we think all sizes of farms should be safe”  obscure the fact that pathogenic bacteria are self replicating.  The more time that elapses between harvest and consumption, the more time there is for bacteria to multiply.  If Congress really wanted to make produce safer they could require all produce to be clearly labeled with the harvest date, and and expiration date.  Or they could omit the expiration date and allow consumers to decide whether they want to eat spinach or salad that was picked many weeks ago.

I am not saying that there is no risk of food born illness from farmers market produce, only that it is far less risky than produce shipped in from distant states/countries.  There has never been a food born illness outbreak traced to a farmers market.  Someday there may be one, but that is in stark contrast to the almost weekly outbreaks and recalls of produce involved in multi state or international shipping.  You can check ThePacker.com to see all the recent recalls,  and also get an idea of how hard the lobbyists for big food are pushing to have a “one size fits all” food safety bill.

It is not for lack of safety that small and mid sized family farms will have a very difficult time complying with the same regulations as the mega farms.  In order to be enforceable these regulations require very extensive documentation of every conceivable aspect of food safety.  We were recently asked by a company that buys our spinach (we grow approximately 1 acre of spinach each year) to be audited by a consultant using the California Leafy Greens Agreement as a model.  The food Safety and Modernization act is using this same model.  Among the reams of documentation required by this audit are these gems:

“Restricted behavior policies should clearly stipulate that children and domestic animals are not allowed in any production area and should explain the consequences associated with such actions.”

“Restricted behavior policies should clearly stipulate that the use of jewelry and other loose items is not allowed in any production area and should clearly explain the consequences associated with such actions.”

“A lab test verifies that transplants used are free of pathogens such as EHEC, E.coli O157:H7, and Salmonella.”

I could go on and on, but the point is that rules which make sense for an operation which picks 500,000 pounds of spinach each day for global distribution may not make sense for a 20 acre farm that sells at farmers markets less than 100 miles from where they grow.  Yes it is possible that someone could be harmed because an Oregon farmer allowed his children to “enter the production area,” or wears a wedding ring, or doesn’t test  transplants for pathogens.  Still the risk is far greater eating shipped in food from global distributors, even if they have entire corporate divisions devoted to food safety.  The resources required to make small and mid sized farms comply with all the requirements of the mega farms, will force many if not most of them to stop farming.  That will not enhance food safety.

Please support the Tester Amendment.

Thanks for listening,

Tom Denison
Denison Farms