Saturday, July 03, 2010

In Food Safety, Size Matters

This is a response written by contributor Anthony Boutard of Ayers Creek Farm to a Capital Press editorial. The regional agricultural weekly stated the opinion that small farms are just a likely to cause food borne illnesses as large ones.

Over the last three decades, consolidation in the food industry has been accompanied by a steady increase in food borne illnesses. Foods considered inherently safe just a decade ago are now subject to multi-state recalls on a regular basis. The editorial “Safety regs should apply to everyone” assumes scale is not a factor in food safety. That assumption is not supported by data, or theory for that matter.

In food safety, size does matter. Over the past two decades the consolidation within the produce and meat industries has led to longer chains of custody, greater intermingling of food, and a loss of farm identity. As this trend has progressed, the industry has found it hard to control and trace outbreaks of food borne illnesses. Tracing the source of contamination through the complex system has proved difficult, often impossible.

During this same period, a separate experiment in food safety has taken place. In a counter-industrial shift, thousands of small market farms have developed a variety of ways to sell directly to consumers.  CSA’s, farm stands and farmer’s markets have proliferated. If scale were an unimportant factor in food safety, there would be an increase in food borne illnesses at the local level paralleling what is happening in the larger food industry. The opposite is true. In Oregon, for example, to my knowledge not a single instance food borne illness associated with produce purchased at a farmers’ market has been reported.

Naturally, food industry officials want us to treat the exemplary safety record of direct produce sales as a statistical fluke. After all, our small farms don’t have bar codes, safety officials and disinfected packing facilities, so people must be at risk of dying from farmers’ market produce. Some industry members darkly suggest that food borne illnesses from local sources are going unreported, as if local health officials would overlook numerous members of a CSA hospitalized or dying from E. Coli O157:H7. The fact is, localized outbreaks would be the easiest to identify and remedy, if they should ever happen. Outbreaks scattered over several states are far more difficult to address than a localized one. The safety record of direct sales is strong testament to the integrity of America’s small family farms, and it is not a statistical oddity.

The editorial makes a serious mistake in parroting the industry’s conceit that all food poses a threat, even from farmers’ markets and CSAs. In a myriad of ways, small market farms are structurally different from industrial farms. The fact that market farmers and their families eat what they grow is the gold standard for food safety, and far more effective than a food safety officer filling out forms in an air-conditioned office. The people who buy our fruits and vegetables see us weekly and often know us on a first name basis. My staff and I are out in the fields daily, and the same crew that helps grow the fruits and vegetables, also harvests them. The structure of the small family farm has served this nation safe and nourishing food since its founding.

The editorial also errs in assuming that small growers are in any way exempt from food safety laws. We are not exempt, and nothing in the Tester amendment exempts us from state food laws. In Oregon, if anyone is selling food that state health officials deem is unwholesome, these officials have the power to close down the operation immediately and seize the food. The authority is so complete, officials dub this authority the “God Clause.” Across the country, local regulation of local food has been proven effective.

Having small market farms such as ours fill out complex forms and send $500 to the federal government will not enhance food safety one iota. Besides being unnecessary, federalizing local food sales will divert resources from the real problem. The complex and powerful food industry is failing this country, not the tradition of purchasing from local family farms. Sound food safety policies should be informed by facts and data, not speculation and fear mongering.


Kris said...

A very well thought out response to the senate S-510 bill. I spent some time reading the bill (there's more in it than just additional regulatory fees for producers (like me) and farmers). The bill reads as though it should be aimed a large industrial farming for the very reasons Anthony cites.
We (my company) is caught in the middle. Under our regulations I have to track the chain of ingredient sourcing in and out of our facility. When purchasing produce from local growers who can't provide some form of plot/lot number I ask for harvest dates to track against. It doesn't stop me from purchasing our high-quality local produce.
I'm not interested in paying more fees for a system that is already in place and working. If the FDA wants to exercise more control, it should be working at the state level to educate and support small(er) producers so the current system continues to work.

Jacquelyn said...

Brilliant. Thanks for sharing this!