Two years ago, amidst spinach recalls and E. coli outbreaks, President Obama signed the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), the first such update of safety laws since 1938. Among other things, the Act calls for better regulation of produce and gives the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) the ability to detect and respond to food safety issues.
Which will make us all safer, right?
That’s questionable. And what is worse, many say, the new laws might also put many farmers out of business, and make organic foods both harder to grow and more expensive.
Although those involved could cite countless issues with the proposed rules, three problems in particular jump out as game-changers for farmers.
Compost is the back bone of organic agriculture. It nourishes the soil with decaying matter, and fertilizes the fields without the use of chemical additives.
“We use compost on every field, every season,” says Judith Redmond of Full Belly Farm. ”The whole organic edifice is built around the idea that microbes are our friends. We encourage growth of beneficial microbes so that they suppress the growth of pathogens dangerous to humans.”
Current organic laws mandate that compost must test pathogen free before it can be used on fields. But now the proposed FDA rules say compost on fields would need to sit for 45 days before produce could be harvested (or 9 months if the manure is untreated). The thinking is that the longer the compost – often comprised of manure – is on a field, the longer it is rendered inert, and void of organisms harmful to humans.
But research shows that healthier soil – soil teaming with microbes – makes for healthier, heartier plants. Using compost also relieves society of another potentially hazardous problem: increasing methane. Reusing organic waste as compost means less greenhouse gas emissions from rotting landfills.
Additionally, the longer farmers must wait for compost to become “safe,” the less fruits and vegetables they are able to harvest each year, which means higher prices for organic produce. It also means the end of organic crops picked before the wait limits, like baby spinach and arugula.
But the additional cost to farmers and consumers will not stop there. According to the proposed rules, farmers will also need to keep records of their compost use and to test some water sources weekly. This will result in logistical and operational expenses for farms, and, according to a recent study could result in increased costs of about US$4,500 a year for a farm making over US$25,000 (or six percent of annual gross sales for “very small farms.”)
The USDA estimates farmers take home only 10 percent of their sales as income.
These costs again put the little guy at a competitive disadvantage, and means that all those consumers currently buying their food locally might need to find larger farms to purchase from.
But if more regulation means safer food, then who cares about the cost?
The problem is that there is little scientific evidence that many of the proposed changes will indeed make people safer.
The testing of generic E. coli for example, does not alert farmers to the presence of sickening pathogens, says Daniel Cohen owner of Maccabee Seed Co., an agricultural research-and-development and consulting company in Davis California (and arguably one of the best informed on the issues with FSMA). Cohen wrote in Food Safety News:
The problem is that the generic E. coli standard is completely uncorrelated with the human pathogens of concern that have caused produce outbreaks and recalls such as E. coli O157:H7 and Salmonella. Worse, it has been shown to be uncorrelated with these human pathogens in actual production of leafy greens and other produce in numerous published studies, including by researchers from USDA and UC Davis, for California production, and by other researchers across the country.
In fact many of the issues with contaminated food come from the processingof food, not from the farmer’s fields. To place the bulk of the responsibility on farmers could cripple our local food systems and make fresh fruits and vegetables even more expensive for people to buy.
The comment period for the proposed new laws ends Friday, November 15. Click here for more information on how to comment or use the hashtag #fixFSMA.