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The Downside of the Food Safety Modernization Act

Photo:usdagov/Flickr/Creative Commons License 


There's no doubt that when historians down the road start their critique/analysis of the Obama Administration, much of the conversation will revolve around universal healthcare. (That is, if the website's up and running by then.) While that's number one with a bullet, the second most important bit of policy will be up for debate. Is it the wide-ranging use of drones? Is it the slow ease-up on the failed War on Drugs? Maybe the clean up of Wall Street's mess?

All are in the running, but there's also a little known sleeper that may have even more wide-ranging and long-lasting effects when all's said and done. It's not in the conversation yet because it has yet to be implemented, but when it is, it will completely change the way you eat.

Ladies and gentlemen, for your consideration, The Food Safety Modernization Act.

I went over this bit of legislation with broad strokes back in January, because the wheels of democracy turn ever so slowly and there were only broad strokes available back then. Essentially -- for those who don't want to click over -- the FSMA, signed way back in January of 2011, seeks to entirely revamp the FDA's increasingly-arcane regulations in the realm of food safety. It will update inspection techniques, give the FDA more powerful authority in issuing mandatory recalls, and improve the safety of food imported from overseas. Beyond those goals, however, there's not much in the way of specifics, which is why the FDA's spent the past few years drafting and debating possible rules.

And now, nearly three years later, the time is almost upon us for the FDA to unveil what the FSMA truly means. And folks, it's not all good.

The problem with this, or really any sweeping reform, is concerns that could be best summarized in that often-quoted metaphorical case of Baby v. Bathwater. In this case, the bathwater is our national food-borne illness epidemic and the baby is small farms. See, if you start creating rules to police a wide range of business sizes -- in this case, small farms versus huge corporate conglomerates -- you tend to hurt the little guy more often. (Think of it like this: If you fine everyone $100, who's going to get hit more: A billionaire CEO or minimum wage worker?) Or, as Mother Jones puts it:

Obviously, what would be a light burden for a multinational giant like, say, Kraft Foods, could be a crushing one for a farm that sells its produce at a farmers market.

And the rules that are about to be presented seem to hurt the small farmer more than perhaps intended. For example, if the legislation goes through, you may have to say goodbye to the fruit and veggies at your local farmers' market:

Because they have some degree of dirt and bacteria on them. The strawberries for instance, have some trace amount of straw and soil on them. As do the tomatoes, beans, and cucumbers. We do rinse them before leaving the farm - but we won't put them through a disinfectant bath nor pack them in antiseptic plastic containers and put "PLU" labels on them. That's not what consumers want at a farm market---nor is it something we'll ever be able to do.

Other foods to say so long to? According to the afore-linked Mother Jones piece, "local, organic carrots in your kid's school lunch program," "kohlrabi in your farm-share box," "pickles peddled by your favorite hipster farmer" and "local, organic spinach." In other words, a lot of what someone reading this site enjoys. (If you're looking for even more reasons to be scared of the FSMA, head over to the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition's "Top 10 Reasons for Farmers, Consumers, and Organizations to Weigh In on Proposed Food Safety Rules" post.)

That's not to say the battle is over, but time is running out. The FDA is listening to public comments over the proposed rules until November 15th. Which means, you have until then to weigh in. Follow these procedures to do so.

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