A big win for healthy local food

Today this was a section called "Second Opinion" in the Winston-Salem Journal" (Winston Salem, NC). I don't know how new this news is but I don't remember seeing anything about it. ---------------------------------------------------------------------------------
A big win for healthy local food
By ROLAND McREYNOLDS
Guest columnist Small-scale, local and organic food producers and their customers won an against-the-odds victory early last month when President Obama signed new food safety legislation.
The FDA Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) purports to give the Food and Drug Administration new tools to fight pathogen contamination in the U.S. food supply. But the most significant elements of the bill are the provisions protecting small and organic farms and local food producers from devastating and unnecessary federal regulations. Talk to any of the vendors at an all-local, producers-only market, like the Cobblestone Farmers Market at Krankies, and you will hear that this legislative battle has weighed heavily on their minds and business decisions. With the FSMA, for the first time, the federal government is on record in recognizing that size does matter in regulating agriculture. By limiting the FDA’s power to govern small farms and food makers predominantly serving local markets, the FSMA ensures that the local food sector can continue to thrive, continue to offer consumers a healthy alternative to industrial food and continue to drive job growth.
Food safety has been a major PR issue in agriculture since 2006, when industrially-farmed spinach from California was contaminated with a deadly strain of the normally benign bacteria E. coli, resulting in illness and deaths nationwide, and a sharp drop in grocery store sales of fresh spinach. The giant distributors and retailers that dominate the produce industry lost billions of dollars, and realized that it was no longer in their interests to oppose new food-safety laws.
So the lobbyists for those companies teamed up with their former enemies in the health-advocacy world and came up with a food-safety bill, HR 2749, that put small local and organic food producers on the hook for the sins of the industrial system. The bill would have made growers selling at the Cobblestone Farmers Market at Krankies use the same growing practices as giant produce operations in the Salinas Valley, and food entrepreneurs using Pilot Mountain Pride in Surry County comply with the same regulations as General Mills.
The conventional wisdom was that the bill would steamroll through Congress. After all, no one could possibly oppose “safe” food. HR 2749 passed the House with an overwhelming bipartisan majority in July 2009. Western North Carolina Rep. Heath Shuler was one of the handful of members who stood up for local farms and food makers and opposed the bill.
But local organic-food interests would not be deterred. Like never before, the sustainable food movement had a major, positive impact during the Senate deliberations over federal food-safety law, and nowhere was the pressure from this movement more effective than North Carolina. N.C.
Sens. Richard Burr and Kay Hagan responded, and both successfully fought for a better deal for local organic food, to the consternation of the big processors and handlers, who turned against the bill when small-farm protections were added.
The final version of the FSMA requires the FDA to ensure that its food safety rules don’t conflict with organic practices or soil and wildlife conservation programs, as industrial “safety” systems have done in California and Florida. It requires the FDA to support research and outreach on safety practices appropriate for small producers.
And it protects farms and food businesses with less than $500,000 in annual sales that sell the majority of their products locally from new FDA regulations. In effect, it recognizes that local organic food is a solution to food safety problems.
Whether the safety of industrial food will improve because of the new law remains to be seen. Senior Republicans on the House Agriculture Appropriations subcommittee are already signaling they won’t fund the FDA to implement the FSMA. Without new inspectors to enforce new regulations, big industry will continue to self-regulate.
There are many in the local food movement who opposed any version of the FSMA on the grounds that the FDA cannot be trusted. But ultimately that concern is a key reason to support the final version of the bill: Last year the FDA began writing on-farm food safety regulations, and you can bet that the agency would not have willingly excluded small farms from its rules.
Now it has no choice.
Because the bill is a good deal for local organic food, Rep. Shuler voted in favor of the final food-safety bill.
Thanks to him and Sens. Burr and Hagan, and thanks to grassroots advocates everywhere, we will have a chance to see head-to-head whether diffused, localized food systems work to better protect public health — in terms of nutrition and pollution as well as pathogen control — than the highly concentrated national and international system does today.
The sustainable-food community welcomes such a competition. The big handlers, distributors and retailers appear less enthusiastic.
Roland McReynolds is an attorney and the executive director of the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association.
The Journal welcomes original submissions for guest columns on local, regional and statewide topics.
Essay length should not exceed 750 words. The writer should have some authority for writing about his or her subject. Our e-mail address is: snipped-for-privacy@wsjournal.com. Essays may also be mailed to: The Readers’ Forum, P.O. Box 3159, Winston-Salem, NC 27102.
Please include your name and address and a daytime telephone number.
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