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Food safety bill serves up concerns for locavores

By Hal Walter

“If people let the government decide what foods they eat and what medicines they take, their bodies will soon be in as sorry a state as are the souls of those who live under tyranny.” – Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson is surely spinning beneath the Monticello sod over recent Congressional passage of the Food Safety and Modernization Act. You see, Jefferson had the notion that this was to be a nation of small farmers.

Soon the bill will be signed into law. It will affect produce, dairy products, eggs and some processed food, but not meat.

The measure, a $1.4 billion dose of doublespeak if I’ve ever heard one, was ostensibly intended to protect Americans from food-borne illnesses. Tens of thousands of people become ill due to pathogen-tainted food each year, and the Centers for Disease Control recently estimated 3,000 people die annually, a significant downgrade from previous estimates of 5,000 deaths.

By comparison, 562,000 people die of cancer and more than 600,000 die of cardiovascular disease each year. Many of these deaths are related to food as well, but we see no legislative efforts to do anything about the highly processed and refined foods that contribute to so many of these deaths.

My point is not to make light of those who have been affected by food-borne illness, but the truth is it doesn’t even make the top-15 causes of death in this country.

So why all the fuss?

Maybe it has something to do with the more than 200 separate food industry organizations that spent tens of millions of dollars lobbying for this bill. They haven’t been concerned with salmonella or E. coli for the last 70 years, but now they’re suddenly throwing money at this bill like the Locavores are at the front gates. You think maybe there’s something in it for them?

Well, it’s hard to tell. The biggest problem with this food safety bill is the obfuscation surrounding it. News stories offer only shallow overviews. Internet posts range from the hysterical paranoia that Homeland Security stormtroopers will be arresting gardeners who saved last year’s pumpkin seeds, to the wildly absurd notion that this bill will actually make food safer. This law will hire 4,000 new FDA inspectors who can’t see microscopic pathogens any better than the 1,400 or so agents we already have.

Backers of the measure range from seed cartel Monsanto and processed food giants Kraft and General Mills, to locavore advocate and author Michael Pollan (go figure on the latter). Most local food organizations and small farm groups oppose it on the grounds that it may unduly burden small farms and businesses with paperwork and regulations, and also could potentially make it easier for big corporations to control the supply of plant seeds.

A major sticking point of the bill was an amendment to exempt small farms with annual sales less than $500,000 and which sell foods directly to consumers, restaurants and retailers within 275 miles of their farms. Big-ag backers of the measure opposed this amendment, which is an eye-opener considering that the Cornucopia Institute has linked all major food-borne illness outbreaks to corporate agribusiness and factory-scale farms.

It’s left up to we the people to sort fact from fiction, and how this law will truly affect small farm and food operations. The bill itself contains enough vague wording that interpretation may require legal assistance. Even the amendment to exempt farms making less than $500,000 annually contains what appears to be an exemption to the exemption – small farms can still be forced to comply if they are considered to have a food safety issue.

Many experts also agree small producers may be subjected to the same regulatory procedures as larger operations under this measure. One analysis is that it would even require those making goods such as jelly for county fairs “to submit three years of financials, documentation of hazard control plans, and all local licenses.” What about bake-sale fundraisers and chili cook-offs?

Don’t you feel safer already?

I do my best to support local farms and farmers markets, and I‘m alarmed by any possibility this new law may negatively impact these food sources. In the past two summers we’ve seen great improvements to the farmers market in Westcliffe, where fresh produce from Javernick Family Farms and other small farming operations can be purchased every week throughout the season.

I’ve also noticed new local food and farming efforts throughout the Central Colorado region, including the Central Colorado Foodshed Alliance, the Salida and Buena Vista farmers markets, raw milk and goat dairies, and Salida’s Plowboy local and regional foods store.

In our area of the Rockies we’ve grown way too dependent on food shipments from outside sources. I recently heard of an incident in which a fight nearly broke out in a local grocery store over the last tomato after the usual truck shipment didn’t arrive. Chew on that for a while.

This food safety bill appears unnecessary and unclear, and seems to tilt the planting fields in favor of industrial farms. Jefferson was right – the government has no business controlling what we eat.

Hal Walter writes and edits from the Wet Mountains.
You can keep up with him regularly at his blog: