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All Things Considered

New England Farmers Worried About Proposed Federal Food Safety Rules

Representatives from the US Food and Drug Administration are traveling around the country this summer speaking with farmers about the Food Safety Modernization Act – which is the biggest reform of food safety laws the country has seen in more than 70 years. 

The FDA held a public hearing on their proposed rules at Dartmouth College.  The farmers we met there are very concerned about the consequences the proposed rules could have on New England agriculture. 


Mike Taylor, Deputy Administrator of  Foods at the FDA, says the Food Safety Modernization Act – or FSMA - came about as a way to try to prevent outbreaks of food borne illness, which is a change from what happens now, which is often more of a frantic reaction after an outbreak of  say, e coli, takes place.

Also, Americans are eating more fresh fruits and veggies, and many of those items are being imported now from all over the world, so he says there’s a lot of demand by consumers and folks like the Grocers Association to update our food policies.  

Congress passed FSMA at the end of 2010, but left the rule writing and implementation to the FDA.  Nobody appears to be arguing with the fact that food safety is important.  But these rules are long and really complicated, and a lot of farmers in New England worry the rules will be so costly to comply with, that they could really stifle growth in that sector. 

And while the FDA says it is trying to be flexible to make the rules suitable for all the different kinds of food production taking place across the country, farmers here say the rules are good for commercial agriculture, bad for the small scale farms that we have in New England. 

Pooh Sprague is a farmer from Plainfield, NH, who spoke at today’s hearing.  You can hear the frustration in his voice when he addresses Taylor. “Mike you said on your blog in WA that you hoped this wouldn’t be a one size fits all," Sprague says. "But you’re going to have to revamp it, because this sure as hell seems like a one-size-fits-all to me!”

Exemptions to exemptions

There are two different rules farmers are concerned about.  The first includes things like testing surface water sources for e coli every seven days; another one is a requirement that farmers apply manure nine months before they plant, which of course, is an entire season for New Hampshire farmers.  

The feds are trying to be flexible, by exempting farms that sell less than $500,000 in produce each year, which does include most New Hampshire farms.  But there are a lot of exemptions to that exemption, which leave even small New Hampshire farms worried about FSMA. For example, many New England farms have diversified their businesses in order to stay sustainable.   

So while the FDA may have modeled its rules on big farms out west that only grow produce, many New England farms actually act like food hubs, buying other farmers’ produce and selling it with their produce in a CSA, and maybe they also process the food they grow into soups or other value-added products. 

It looks like those activities may exclude mixed-use farms from the small farm exemption, and could subject them to other food processing rules. 

What farmers want next

The FDA rules are only proposed at this point, and there’s an official comment period which doesn’t end until November 15th.  Roger Noonan, the president of the New England Farmers Union, is calling the rules both unfunded and unscientific. He’d like to see more research done on the actual risk posed to public health by small local farms, and on the economic impact on farmers like Pooh Sprague.

Sprague, by the way, estimates that compliance will cost him $13,000/year  -- enough to motivate him to downsize  in order to qualify for an exemption.  Sprague says that  would mean firing 4-6 employees. 

Other farmers have asked that the FDA increase the exemption limit to include more farmers, or change the costly regulations like surface water testing.  Now, the FDA says it plans to take all of the feedback they receive, and use it to make the rules acceptable for small and mixed-use farmers. 

Correction: An earlier version of this two way refers to the "New Hampshire Farmers Union" instead of the "New England Farmers Union." 

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