Food safety bill could take bite out of small producers

The Billings Gazette

by Tom Lutey

America’s food safety laws need tightening, but not if small producers and farmers’ markets are harmed, said U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, who worries that new reforms could clobber the local-food movement.

Wednesday, the Montana Democrat rolled out two amendments exempting small food producers from a broad overhaul of food-borne illness regulations.

The Food Safety Modernization Act is headed to the Senate floor next week. Proponents say the act is good medicine for a food industry stricken by high-profile outbreaks of E. coli and salmonella in recent years. Among other things, the bill requires better record keeping, testing and tracking from food producers of all sizes.

Small producers, who contend they’re not the source of the nation’s food problems, say the costs of meeting the new regulations will put them out of business.

“What they’re really after is having everybody who makes or sells a product have a tracking system,” said Perry McNeese of Good Earth Market. “That’s one piece of it. That kind of record keeping for a small producer can become astronomical.”

Good Earth Market relies upon 81 small vendors producing everything from baked goods to jam, McNeese said. Most of those businesses are one-person operations. Collectively, they might do less than $400,000 in business a year with the Billings food cooperative. The tight relationship Good Earth has with its vendors would make it easy to respond to any food problem, he said. The small vendors are responsive in ways larger ones aren’t.

Tester echoed those sentiments while announcing his amendments during a press conference between Senate votes.

“We’re really taking a punch at people who don’t need to have a punch taken at them,” Tester said.

State and local regulations apply to small producers, which should be enough, the senator said. His two amendments would assure that producers with adjusted gross incomes of less than $500,000 a year would only answer to state and local laws for processed food. Producers selling food directly through farmers’ markets would also be exempt.

Not everyone believes local food is so wholesome that it should be exempted from food safety reforms. Howard Reid, who oversees food and consumer safety for Montana’s Department of Public Health and Human Services, said the food-borne illnesses handled by his office stem from various sources, including small producers. For that reason, he supports regulating small producers under the Food Safety Modernization Act.

Sandra Eskin, who oversees food safety issues for the Pew Charitable Trusts, said Montana has food-borne illness outbreaks in its fairly recent past. In 1995, E. coli contaminated lettuce sickened nearly 100 people in the Missoula area. Health officials traced the outbreak back to a half-dozen lettuce farms selling produce under the same brand, but that’s where they lost the trail. Without traceability, inspectors weren’t able to positively identify which of the farms caused the contamination. They did note that one Montana farm was using a manure-contaminated stock pond to water its lettuce.

Eskin said there should be regulation of scale, which she thinks the pending legislation allows and the Food and Drug Administration and U.S. Department of Agriculture will accommodate.

“I’m sympathetic to their concerns,” Eskin said of the small producers, “but get in there and give us solutions. Tell the FDA and USDA what you can do, not what you can’t.”