President's message: Food-safety law may have unintended results


Issue Date: September 4, 2013
Paul Wenger

Over the past five weeks, Ag Alert® has dedicated its front page to a series of articles on food safety as it relates to soon-to-be-adopted rules to enforce the Food Safety Modernization Act. FSMA was signed into law by President Obama on Jan. 4, 2011, directing the Food and Drug Administration to shift the focus of federal regulators from responding to food contamination incidents to preventing them. This is a worthy endeavor, as no one expects to become ill or die from eating food products of any kind.

However, a well-intended law, implemented through regulations developed by people who have no practical experience growing and handling the diversity of food crops produced in our country, is a recipe for more process-driven regulation with little regard for actual results.

FSMA will have significant impacts on the growing, harvesting and processing of all agricultural commodities, whether those food crops are produced for the organic market or by "conventional" production standards. Several food-borne contaminations that occurred beginning in 2006 drew a great deal of public attention and resulted in the political actions that ultimately led to the Food Safety Modernization Act. The agricultural sector in California and Arizona had already responded in a very expeditious manner as a result of those food contamination issues, with the development and implementation of the Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement in 2007.

In addition to the development of stringent Good Management Practices to prevent the potential for contamination from such pathogens as salmonella, E.coli 0157:H7 and others, the agricultural sector developed rigorous traceability protocols to limit suspected problems in the food system as well as to identify the origin of potential contamination. This system has worked extremely well, yet the government wants to go beyond this pragmatic response to preventing food-borne illness to a regulatory program that embraces a "precautionary principle" that is unattainable, intrusive and costly.

When discussing the safety of our food supply, cost should never be an issue. However, it makes little sense to spend money to comply with regulations that are poorly drafted and are designed to prevent extremely rare situations from occurring.

It's ironic that today our government is encouraging local, organic or farm-to-fork endeavors in our communities and schools, yet the policies and regulations it develops and implements result in larger, more concentrated farms and ranches because of the extremely high cost of regulatory compliance. While the rules include certain exemptions for smaller farming operations, does it really matter where food originates if it has the potential to be inadvertently contaminated by pathogens that could result in a food-borne illness?

America already enjoys the most rigorous food safety production standards employed anywhere in the world. In many situations, California has exceeded the food safety practices utilized throughout our country in taking a proactive approach to protect consumers, which was necessary due to the diversity of the crops we grow here and the fact that many of those crops are marketed and consumed in their fresh, raw form. The FDA, with its proposed FSMA rules, has extended the reach of its proposed regulations well beyond the point of packaging and processing to production and harvesting activities. Currently, growers deal with volatile and changing markets, unexpected weather impacts, the challenges of an ever-increasing regulatory gauntlet and declining availability of willing workers. It would be devastating to add to the mix a visit from an FDA inspector who could shut down an operation for reasons having nothing to do with exposure to unwanted pathogens.

Food safety is something that should never be taken for granted, and it hasn't been. As consumers of the products we grow and as the people closest to the source of production, farmers and ranchers want the healthiest and safest food for their families, as they do for families of all consumers. Like any unintended problem, whether it is a recall on a car, medicine or food product, traceability and a system to identify and limit the potential problem will address issues that are unexpected or accidental and not the rule.

FSMA was predicated in part on reports that 3,000 people die each year from food-borne illnesses. It's important to recognize that for food products covered under FSMA , for the years between 1996 and 2010, 27 deaths occurred. While any death is unacceptable, for perspective, it's important to remember that 36,000 people die each year from the flu and 32,000 die in car accidents. There is no question that farmers and ranchers have a very impressive food-safety record.

The Food Safety Modernization Act is a worthy undertaking, but like most government programs, it could take on a life of its own, with self preservation becoming its main focus. If increasing regulation makes it harder for American farmers to stay in business, an increasing proportion of our food will come from other countries. Forcing food production beyond our nation's borders and out of the view of our regulatory agencies will do nothing to protect our consumers and will have devastating effects on local food producers of all sizes and methods of production.

Comments are due by Nov. 15. To find out how to comment, see http://1.usa.gov/11J9gvU. I encourage you to research how FSMA will affect your farm or ranch and submit comments and concerns to the FDA.

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.