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Eric and Joanna Reuter own Chert Hollow Farm near Columbia, Mo. (Photo by Jessica Naudziunas)
Eric and Joanna Reuter own Chert Hollow Farm near Columbia, Mo. (Photo by Jessica Naudziunas)

New food safety rules exempt small farms

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Peanuts, eggs, tomatoes, spinach. These foods are just a few nourishing items among many culprits that have made almost seventy-six million Americans sick each year. In the attempt to make food safer, Congress has authorized food safety regulation that will work to control foodborne illness outbreaks. But these new rules will apply to large-scale producers. Harvest Public Media's Jessica Naudziunas reports how small farmers were almost regulated along with the big guys in close call for the small food producing community.

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Eric and Joanna Reuters own Chert Hollow Farm. They're known in the Columbia local food circuit as devoted, vocal and a little feisty about what they grow. (garden tour ambi up) When it comes to the safety of their crop, They say small farms like theirs stand less of a chance to make people sick-the food goes directly to the buyer, though they know food that comes from the ground isn't always harmless.

Reuters 1"Food is dirty, food is something that is going to have problems now and then. It has been throughout human history and it is always going to be so. We can't sanitize food production. Small farms are not perfect either. We can make mistakes. Anywhere in the system can make mistakes.   (:16)

One of the hold ups in passing food safety regulation was a highly contested amendment that ultimately made its way into the new law. The Tester-Hagan amendment is an exemption for small producers who distribute fifty-percent of their product to customers up to two-hundred-seventy-five miles away AND make less than five-hundred-thousand dollars in gross sales annually. These small farms will continue to be vetted by state regulations, instead of complying to new federal rules. Reuters says federal oversight of their small farm style wouldn't have made his food any safer.

Reuters 2 "It's not a question of small or big farms, or organic or not organic farms. It is simply a question of how that marketing works. I think what the Tester Amendment attempts to do is to preserve that sense of personal responsibility among both the farmer and the consumer. And we only need regulation to step in once that relationship becomes strained or distant enough so that that is no longer possible." (:21) So what kind of regulatory fun are small producers missing out on? The FDA will now have the power to impose stricter growing and harvesting standards, and increased safety inspection visits to large farms.

Many large producers are unhappy with the exemption for small producers. They say food-borne illnesses know no bounds, and small-producers should not be exempt because of size.

Fink-Weber 1 "We think it sends the wrong message to consumers."  (:02) That Wendy Fink-Weber. She's with the Western Growers Association. They represent large and small growers in California.

Fink-Weber 2 "Because of the exemption of small growers for reasons based on sales, geography and types of customers. Instead of risk and science. So when it comes to making a choice of purchasing fresh produce grown under a strict set of safety standards or produce that is not, you know, which ones would you buy?" (:25) Well, if you buy bagged spinach from the supermarket, it usually doesn't come from one place-those leafy greens are a collection of produce from several farms, then processed and packaged at one central location...making it much more difficult to trace a possible outbreak. The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition was one organization behind the effort to support small farm provisions. It's the kind of group that asserts raw produce is not inherently dangerous and small farms do not cause the major, nation-wide outbreaks. Ferd Hoefner is Policy Director of the Coalition.

Hoefner 1 "If the farmer's name, address and phone number on the product. Or, if the consumer bought it from a farmer's market from a farmer that they know where they're from, then that is inherent traceability. And we don't need to require to go through very costly traceability efforts." (:20) These new food safety regulations were just authorized by Congress, not funded, which means another round through the House and Senate. What becomes effective immediately, however, is the FDA's authority to immediately recall products suspected of carrying pathogens that make people sick. Other than that, the food industry will have to wait and see how long it will take before these new rules become safely funded and digested.

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