Nat’l Food Safety Fears Might Cost Regional Agriculture

During an otherwise cheerful meeting of local foodies at the Michigan Land Use Institute last year, Don Coe stood up and announced storm clouds were on the horizon. The co-owner of Black Star Farms in Suttons Bay and state agriculture commissioner said the peanut butter recall of 2009 was too expensive for nothing to happen. Five people around the nation had died from eating peanut butter made at a plant in Georgia. Coe suggested everyone embrace the need to make America's food supply safer "without putting the small farmer out of business."

One year later, that hope hangs in the balance. More and more retail stores are demanding inspections to certify food safety standards are being followed. And the U.S. Congress has responded by drafting legislation that could greatly expand the power of the federal government to regulate farms and food producers – potentially unleashing a host of new expenses that the economics of a small farm might not be able to withstand.

Consider, for instance, that since inspectors typically charge about $92 an hour (plus the expenses associated with paperwork and other steps in the process), most farmers say the costs start around $1,000 for each fruit or vegetable grown, no matter the size of the farm.

"Which is really not very affordable," says Coe.

Currently, most small farms have no need to be certified; they usually sell directly to customers at farmers markets or at the farm. Even growers that sell through Cherry Capital Foods, a niche wholesaler in Traverse City that distributes food regionally, need not be certified yet.

But if legislation changes that? Cherry Capital Foods' manager, Evan Smith, says he doesn't think the small farms that make up the local food economy are in a position to handle costly new rules and regulations.

"If we kill that part of the industry with paperwork and money at this point, we're going to defeat a growing movement and make it much more difficult for the local farmers to get into the restaurants, schools and facilities where local food is wanted," he says.

Smith says Cherry Capital Foods will seek to become a certified food handler in the future; right now, it cannot sell to some potentially large buyers in the area, like Munson Hospital, without doing so.

Certification is awarded based on points, and food handlers do get points if all their growers are certified, but Smith says they'll be able to make it up in other ways. He's glad to cover for growers who, he believes, run safe operations anyway.

"I'm not convinced that the greatest threat to food safety lies in the small scale production that is being delivered in a day or two to a local consumer," says Smith. "I think the local food economy has probably been safer than the mega food economy for a long time."

Producers of the region's main commodity crop, tart cherries, are also not in a great position to deal with new costs right now. A thousand dollars to certify a cherry farm that grows hundreds of thousands of pounds of fruit may seem like a pittance, but the value of tart cherries already has dropped below the cost to produce them. Dave Edmondson, a grower on Old Mission Peninsula, says the pressure to sell fruit at the lowest possible price is driving people like him out of business. He says the market doesn't adjust when growers are asked to absorb new costs.

"I'd love to raise the bar," says Edmondson. "But how are we going to pay for it?"

The U.S. Congress may be debating that question as soon as this spring. Legislation already pending in Washington would require certification for many producers regardless of what the market demands. At the moment, the only growers who would escape new requirements would be those who grow, but do nothing to process, fruits and vegetables that have shown no risk to carrying food borne illnesses. (Even a family selling a few tomatoes from their garden at a roadside stand could fall under government regulation.)

The U.S. Senate, but not the House, is committed to making inspections free to farmers. If not free, the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition projects the costs for the new oversight would run into the billions of dollars for all the new oversight. The group's policy director, Ferd Hoefner, says it would make more sense for the government to target operations based on risk.

"If there are farms that FDA scientists say are of no concern," asks Hoefner, "why would we spend taxpayers' money to hire new FDA inspectors to go inspect those farms?"

Hoefner says new rules could become law as early as this spring, and at the moment the FDA is committed to casting the regulatory net as widely as possible. Still, he says, there's hope: Arguments in favor of distinguishing between farms' differing scale of risk are getting some traction in Washington. And there are also some exceptions in the bill based on how much food is sold directly by the producer to the people who eat it. BN