Food Safety Modernization Act – An Assault on Sustainable Agriculture?

December 4, 2014

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

Image Removed

The sustainable agriculture movement, and its complementary local food movement have become, over the past several years, one of the fastest growing and most concrete demonstrations of a cultural challenge to American values of consumerism, corporate power, and the belief that complex technology is always better than simple.  
Concerned over a possible threat to their dominance, and to the broader challenge to consumerism that this movement represented, the corporate (pseudo) food industry has responded with every strategy in its book, including greenwashing, coopting the local image, and legal and regulatory assault on the movement rising in opposition.
The Food Safety Modernization Act, overhauled supervision of food safety under the FDA for the first time in 70 years, and arose in part out of public concern over the repeated examples of widespread food borne illnesses. These illnesses, which included a number of deaths, were usually the result of contamination of vegetables or meat with fecal bacteria in factory operations, and were hard to trace and control because of the national distribution of produce and hamburger. These outbreaks helped the food movement, since it made eminent sense to many people to know where their food came from, to insure its quality.
The corporate food industry has largely supported the FSMA, because it will help enhance their image, with the idea that another layer of bureaucratic inspection will make food safe. In designing the regulations for FSMA, the Food and Drug Administration has shown itself generally a faithful servant of big ag, making minimal distinctions between local, small farms and giant corporations, and designing procedural “safeguards” of food quality which will be easy for billion dollar corporations to adopt but which will bankrupt small farmers, especially those who sell directly to the public, and through local initiatives like CSAs and food hubs, which minimize the intermediaries while enhancing the farmer’s income from her produce.
Despite amendments in the bill, won after extensive campaigns by small farms and local food enthusiasts to exempt small farms, direct marketers, CSA’s and the like from the corporate scale regulations, the proposed regulations have done their best to ignore those mandates, along with showing the FDA’s complete ignorance of what farming really looks like.
The FDA readily admits that its regulations will make it harder for small farmers to get started, stay in business or diversify, and will cost, proportional to their income, six times as much as for larger, factory farms. They justify their “one size fits all” regulations on the anticipated elimination of food borne illnesses, but no serious documentation has been presented on the actual number or specific sources of food borne illness, let alone an analysis showing the proportion of such illnesses that result from small business, direct to consumer, local food.
Many consumer advocacy groups have supported the FDA, (e.g., Committee for Science in the Public Interest, and the Union of Concerned Scientists)  accepting the assumptions about the source of illness and the technology needed to prevent it, which has made it difficult for local food advocates and farmers to challenge the rules without being portrayed as not caring about food safety by some of those advocacy groups who are innocently doing the bidding of the corporate ag giants.
 A story on the UCS website  lists the outbreaks which affected people in many states. While this is only possible with huge scale, corporate agriculture, UCS makes no distinction and no reference to the local food movement. Sustainable agriculture advocates are among those whose vigorous questioning of the relevance and impact of the FDA rules are part of why the regulations have been delayed, but UCS doesn’t see that movement as part of the solution of food safety.
Of course, additional layers of bureaucracy and technology layered on an already incredibly inefficient food system (in terms of energy invested to produce a calorie of food energy) will make it ever more energy intensive, and fragile, and will not increase corporate accountability to consumers who are thousands of miles and several factories away from where their food was grown and processed.
But if our local farmers can’t afford to stay in business, or get shut down by government agents, not because someone got sick, but because their paperwork is not up to snuff with someone at a desk in Washington, what choice will we have?  How will the local food movement grow if unnecessary and irrelevant rules increase the cost differential between real, local food and mass manufactured food like substances?
This is the crux of the issue. We are not ready to be again a nation of farmers, each growing our own, but we are potentially on the edge of a major shift in public consciousness in favor of sustainable local food chains, moving us toward independence from corporate agriculture, and that much less dependent on fossil fuels.
While we build those food networks, we also need to be cognizant that what we are doing is not politically neutral, and that we will have increasingly strident enemies from seats of power in the boardrooms, and in Washington, among our elected officials and also the entrenched, corporate friendly bureaucracies of the USDA and, in this case the FDA. Those who wealth and power derives from and is invested in the values and technologies which have put us on a trajectory of fatal overshoot cannot turn back. While we build alternatives, we also need to be prepared to resist their efforts to make alternatives impossible.
The sustainable agriculture movement is this country has been growing through this the fight to mitigate the worst aspects of the FSMA to protect the alternative of local food for at least six years, since this FSMA had its origins in proposed legislation. It has succeeded in winning some concessions from the FDA. The final comment period on regulations to implement the FSMA closes December 15, and anyone who eats has a stake in the outcome.

For more detailed analysis of the Act, and comprehensive instruction on how to comment, visit the web page of the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition focused on this issue. 

Tags: building resilient food systems, food safety regulations