Small Potatoes


by Annie Lowrey

Most Americans' Thanksgiving tables will be filled on Thursday with the fruits of a fiercely efficient, competitive, centralized, and industrialized food-production system. That system provides a tremendous bounty year-round, and for cheap. But it comes with a steep price: It can get a lot of us sick. In August, for instance, the Food and Drug Administration ordered the recall of more than 500 million salmonella-contaminated eggs. Though distributed under more than 70 brand names in 26 states, the eggs came from just two companies. Every year, about 250,000 Americans go to hospital with a preventable food-borne disease. About 5,000 die from one.

The Senate is currently considering a sweeping bill that aims to make our food safer. But the makers of "non-industrial" food—small, local, and family farms and processors—are fighting to preserve exemptions to regulations they say could put them out of business.

The bill—the Senate version of legislation the House passed last year—beefs up, as it were, the FDA. For starters, it gives the FDA the power to order companies to recall food. (Currently, and and almost unbelievably, companies make that decision on their own, under government and consumer pressure.) It expands the agency's ability to write regulations about how and where food is grown. It requires processors to keep more detailed records of what came from where and what happened to it, so that the FDA can trace outbreaks more easily. It gives the FDA more resources for inspectors. And it requires all processors to have hazard-control plans. (One big caveat: The FDA does not oversee most meat and poultry. The Department of Agriculture does that, and its regulations are not changing.)

Though companies like ConAgra produce most of the United States' food, they do not produce all of it. Indeed, the U.S. food production system is commonly described as "bipolar." On one hand, there is Big Agribusiness. On the other hand, there are thousands of small, independent, and family-owned farms.

Initially, the Senate bill would have imposed the same rules on just about everybody. And as any small-business owner will eagerly point out, regulatory burdens always fall heavier on smaller companies. America's largest producer of baby carrots, for example, probably has a team of lawyers on staff to write its hazard plan and plenty of employees to escort FDA inspectors. The guy who sells carrots at the weekly farmer's market, it's safe to say, does not.

So before the Senate took up the bill, small farms went on the offensive. Their essential argument: The problems this legislation is trying to address are simply not theirs. Of course small farms have sold bad eggs—but they've never sold enough to call 500 million eggs into question. Scores of farming groups have written a number of letters to Congress protesting the law, arguing that the potential risks their products pose are "inherently limited by their size" and the proposed bill "would simply harm both the food producers and their consumers."

But some food-safety advocates noted that while small farms might not be able to spread bacterial infections nationwide, they can nevertheless spread them. Why not make small farms safer? Lobbyists from Big Ag enthusiastically agreed. "We believe an operation's size, the growing practices used, or its proximity to customers does not determine whether the food offered is safe," they wrote in a letter to the Senate earlier this month. "What matters is that the operation implements prudent product safety practices, whether the product is purchased at a roadside stand, a farmers' market, or a large supermarket." Signing the letter was a cornucopia of national associations, federations, and councils, representing everything from turkeys to mushrooms.

Lobbyists for Big Ag say that they just want to make the market fair—and that means everyone plays by the same rules. Lobbyists for small farmers also say that they just want to make the market fair—and that means not punishing small farms by imposing costs and regulations that will drive them out of business.

In this battle, at least, the little guys have won out so far. "Food production in America is already too centralized, so we've got to fix this bill so it doesn't put a nail in the coffin of family-scale producers," said Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., who sponsored an amendment exempting most small farms from certain onerous parts of the law. "The folks who sell their produce directly to the local market—whose customers can see them eyeball-to-eyeball and know where their food is coming from—shouldn't be forced to deal with expensive new regulations aimed at big industry-scale producers." Foodie gurus such as Michael Pollan and Eric Schlosser argued for Tester's amendment.

As it now stands, the bill includes the amendment, which has been slightly modified: If a farmer sells less than $500,000 in produce a year, and sells most of it to consumers, restaurants, or grocery stores (rather than brokers or processors) within his own state or within 275 miles, then it would be exempt from the new regulations. And if products from any given small farm get anyone sick, the FDA reserves the right to revoke its exemptions.

The Senate bill is scheduled to come up for a vote on Monday, and is expected to pass. But then the bill has to be merged with a House version, which directs the FDA to consider the impact of its rules on small-scale farms and producers, but does not specifically protect them from federal rules. If the House and Senate are able to reconcile their versions, the bill may make it to President Obama's desk by the time he carves his (free-range, of course) Christmas goose.