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Vegetable farmer, and new Commissioner of Agriculture and Markets, Richard Ball
Vegetable farmer, and new Commissioner of Agriculture and Markets, Richard Ball

Farmers fear food safety rules too costly

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For the first time, the Food and Drug Administration is proposing new food safety rules for produce farmers across the country. The FDA wants to reduce the number of people getting sick from things like spinach, cilantro, or peanuts contaminated with harmful bacteria.

The FDA asked for comments on the rules this year. Thousands of Upstate New York farmers responded. Many of them criticized the rules, saying they could spoil their livelihood. The FDA recently announced it's responding to the objections.

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Reported by

Monica Sandreczki
Innovation Trail reporter

Richard Ball runs Scoharie Farms on Route 30 outside of Albany. He walks over to a metal gate closing in one of his fields and yanks up the hood on his coat, blocking the wind. . .

“Way over there by the carrot harvester, where we were just digging parsnips, until this froze solid on us, is a field of popcorn, which is still standing, which we’ll pick this winter.”

The fields are mostly dried up, blanketed in day-old snow. Ball’s farmed here for 20 years, but says he’s afraid new regulations from the Food and Drug Administration will make it a lot harder.

“We’re at the worry part because we don’t know exactly what we’re dealing with here.”

Back in 2010, Congress passed the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act, or FSMA, amidst a storm of headlines of people sickened by food borne illnesses.

“1 in 6 people get sick as a result of what they eat.”

Michael Arcuri represented New York’s 24th District at the time and co-sponsored the bill. He says its intent was to expand the FDA’s ability to recall problem foods.

“It was a bill that allowed the FDA to take a more proactive and less reactive position.”

The FDA was also given the authority to set new rules for each step of produce farming – from growing to harvesting to packing.

The new rules apply to 40% of farms nationwide, depending on the farm’s size and reach. Many farmers say the proposed rules are too strict.

Richard Ball is already testing the water from the creek that irrigates his fields each month.

“This is the test kit that we’ll use. We get these test kits from the laboratory. . .”

Under the proposed rules, the water would have to meet stricter standards, similar to ones used for public swimming pools. Ball says that’s excessive and has nothing to do with food safety. Plus, the new rules require water-testing every week. . .

“I’m sure I’m looking at a $10,000 bill. (every year?) The first year anyway. I can see that without thinking about it.”

Michael Taylor is with the FDA. He says concerns raised by farmers have led the agency to make some changes to the rules.

“The water-testing does bring some cost. We’ve heard a lot of that and we’ll look to minimize those in every practical way we can, so this is an ongoing process.”

Besides water-testing, other rules involve more detailed record keeping and stricter personal hygiene standards for workers.

Kelly Young is with the New York Farm Bureau. She says these new rules could force farmers to hire full-time staff.

“We think they’re underestimating the cost. Our farmers are working on really small margins. They don’t always make a lot of money. A farmer is a price-taker, not a price-setter. . ."

. . .so they would have to absorb the added cost, instead of passing it on to the consumer, says Young.

This is would be the first federal regulation of fresh produce. Because of that, the Farm Bureau’s Kelly Young is concerned the FDA doesn’t have the right experience.

“They are used to regulating places where we process food. But what a factory looks like and what a farm looks like, they’re two very different things.”

She thinks rule-setting makes more sense under the prevue of the US Department of Agriculture.

Last week, the FDA announced they will revise some of the proposed rules by June of next year. After that, the rules will be up for comment again.

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