If you care about food and farming and you use the Internet, you've probably received this particular e-mail. The title is something like, "BILL WOULD OUTLAW ORGANIC FARMING!!!!" or "MONSANTO'S DREAM BILL!!!!" It appears, inevitably, in all caps. I have upwards of 30 versions in my inbox.
Normally, it would be immensely gratifying to see such a groundswell of energy coming from the netroots on a piece of federal policy. Most of the time, my posts practically beg for such wonky revolution. But this time, I'm not cheering — I'm banging my head against the wall. Why? First, because the e-mail and the op-ed that often accompanies it are as full of misinformation as they are of exclamation points. Second, because I'm afraid that while everyone's distracted by this bill, far more sinister ones may be creeping through Congress unopposed.
After I lay out why the e-mails being circulated on H.R. 875, Rep. Rosa DeLauro's Food Safety Modernization Act, do us all a disservice, I'll get into some of the other food safety bills introduced in Congress that present very serious concerns for small farmers.
But first, some group psychology. The reason H.R. 875 e-mails have been so effective is because they've tapped into a legitimate fear that many in the small farm/good food communities have about government regulation of the food system. There's a reason that everything Joel Salatin wants to do is illegal: it's because by and large, the laws governing food production — especially food processing — in this country have been built for the big guys and imposed on the little guys to their detriment. And so the last thing we need now is to follow our one-size-fits-all approach to, say, slaughterhouses, with a one-size-fits-all approach to food safety on the farm.
That said, if we want "niche" farm products like organic to become more mainstream, if we want more farm-to-institution programs, if we want farmers markets in every town and city — well, pretty soon we're going to have to figure out how to create food safety regulations that work for small farms and processors. We can't keep hoping that small operations will be able to avoid food safety regulation because they're small, that they'll operate outside of the rules that govern most of the food Americans eat. So the crux of the matter, as I see it, is this:
How can we be proactive on food safety? How can we stop saying simply "no" and start saying "OK, provided that the rules work for us, and here are some that do"?
Busting some myths: H.R. 875
There are certainly a lot of people who have been saying no to H.R. 875, and not always for the right reasons. H.R. 875 is a bill that would split the FDA's food and drug divisions into two entities and put the food division under a newly-formed Food Safety Administration. It would allow this FSA to regulate food production facilities, which could include small farms but would not include backyard gardens, other producers of food that is not sold, nor any farms that sell food in the same state as they produce it. (Federal bills, by definition, can only govern things that go into inter-state commerce.) The bill would allow regulated facilities to be inspected but it does not require farms or processors to pay a fee for that inspection. Other bills do; see below. It would require farms to keep food safety records, but it specifies that records could be kept on paper rather than electronic form, which is important; other bills would require that the records be kept electronically, a scenario that gave me the shivers in this post.
H.R. 875 doesn't regulate retailers, which means that farmers markets would be exempt. It does not mention the word "seed" or "organic" and does not require anyone to use any pesticides they don't want to, contrary to the e-mails being circulated. It does establish "minimum standards" for pesticide and fertilizer use, but that is understood by everyone I asked to mean safety standards, not standards governing whether or not farmers must use them. And the bill doesn't regulate livestock, since the FDA has no jurisdiction over livestock (that's USDA territory), so it wouldn't impose mandatory National Animal ID. Other bills would.
But it would require imported food to meet the same standards as domestically produced food, something that would have been nice when that melamine-laced milk powder was drifting across our borders. It would increase inspection of food processing plants, especially the most risky ones (but again, wouldn't charge a fee for inspection, key for small ops). It would also require farms under its jurisdiction to write a food safety plan and keep those records I mentioned. That could be burdensome, depending on how it's ultimately worded; that's a legitimate concern that many observers have rightfully raised. But not black-helicopters-hovering-over-your-garden-level concern. Concern worthy of proactive work to make sure that the requirements are feasible for everyone.
You don't need to take my word for any this: there's myth-busting information available on the bill from the Organic Farming Research Foundation, the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association (MOFGA), Food & Water Watch, the Farmers Market Coalition, and the Organic Consumers Association. FactCheck.org takes the H.R. 875 email to task as "Internet hysteria" here. And the e-mail is even crowned an urban myth with its very own entry on Snopes.
MOFGA was part of a delegation of small farmers that met with Rep. DeLauro last week, and they described her as "very responsive" to their concerns. That bodes well, particularly if the rest of us dial back the alienating screech that insists she's doing nothing more than Monsanto's bidding. (Yes, conspiracy theorists, her husband, democratic pollster Stan Greenberg, did do a consulting job for Monsanto 10 years ago. He also did one for Nelson Mandela. I'd say they balance out.)
And from the other peanut-policing galleries
Food safety is all the rage this year in Congress, and rightfully so: between tainted jalapenos, spinach, peanuts, and pistachios, the food supply needs some major help. Everyone seems at the ready with their own version of the solution. But as I feared in a previous post on produce safety, many of the proposed solutions are expensive, technologically complex, and may not actually work.
Perhaps the worst of the lot is HR 1332, Rep. Costa's Safe FEAST Act of 2009, which is backed by the Big Ag group Western Growers. It would create a HACCP system for produce. (HACCP is the set of burdensome recordkeeping requirements credited with hastening the demise of many small-scale slaughter facilities.) It doesn't take the size of operations into account. It would pay for inspections by charging fees to farms and processors and would hand the duty of inspection over to third-party certifiers. Because yeah, that's worked so well for us to date.
Then there's Rep. DeGette's H.R. 814, which actually does mandate a National Animal Identification System, which we and lots of other people have major concerns about. And there's H.R. 759, offered by Rep. Dingell, which requires traceability of food from farm to restaurants and requires that the recordkeeping be done electronically. It also charges fees to processors — small or large — for inspections.
None of these bills are good for small farmers, and I hope we might agree that they would all be worse than H.R. 875.
So here's the kicker: According to everyone with whom I've spoken on the Hill, H.R. 875 is dead in the water. Rep. Waxman, the chair of the committee with jurisdiction over food safety legislation, has made it clear he is not going to move DeLauro's bill forward. Rep. Dingell's H.R. 759 is the one that the committee will run with in all likelihood. Many inside-the-Beltway observers assume we'll end up with a hybrid between Dingell's bill and Costa's Safe FEAST Act, much to the delight of Big Ag. In a slightly better-case scenario, parts of DeLauro's bill will get inserted into the final product — parts that we are not helping her improve by calling her a Monsanto shill and promptly disengaging after we forward this email to all our food-movement acquaintances.
So what can we do?
I'm not OK with the assumption that we'll end up with a Dingell-Costa monster hybrid to govern the safety of our food system. That's because I think we have the potential to dramatically reform these bills when they move forward (which they haven't yet). The frenzy over H.R. 875 shows that it is possible to mobilize a lot of people around a food safety bill, and it shows that there's a groundswell of support for making food safety regulations small-farm friendly. If we can shift that energy to where it's needed and hammer home our message — we want safe food and a diverse food system! — and then offer concrete alternatives, then I think we have some hope. MOFGA has a great synopsis of the principles that should guide this work; other groups from New England to North Carolina to California are developing on-farm food safety guidelines that work for small farms. That means we'll have effective alternative models to show our legislators.
Congress isn't going to move forward quickly with any of these bills, but we can start early by calling our representatives and telling them what we want to see in food safety legislation. Begin with MOGFA's list and add your own from there. Mention the serious concerns with Costa's and Dingell's bills, H.R. 1332 and H.R. 759. When these bills begin moving forward, we'll let you know and suggest other actions to take. Join the list-servs of the groups mentioned above that are working to strengthen DeLauro's bill. And if you receive a misleading e-mail about H.R. 875, point the sender to some of these groups' resources.
'Cause I don't know about you, but I think it's high time that we set the food safety agenda instead of just reacting to it.