FOOD SAFETY BILL COULD "DEVASTATE" COLUMBIA COUNTY
09-15-09 – 10:20 a.m. - Farm advocates are crying foul over a proposal that could “devastate” farming in Columbia County and elsewhere.
The proposal—Food Safety Enhancement Act of 2009 (HR 2749/S510)—“would absolutely devastate Columbia County,” according of Gianni Ortiz, executive director of the Regional Farm and Food Project, a non-profit dedicated to promoting sustainable agriculture and local food systems in the Hudson Valley. Eric Ooms, president of the Columbia County Farm Bureau, said his organization opposes the legislation for several reasons, not the least of which is that “it doesn’t make sense.”
Ortiz said the legislation, if passed by the U.S. Senate, would “put small farms out of business” by mandating cumbersome and expensive actions by the farmers. The legislation was already approved by the U.S. House of Representatives, and a Senate version, sponsored by Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill) was introduced last month.
Among the requirements of the House legislation are:
• A $500 per facility registration fee, with an annual cap of $175,000 for any individual owner.
• All facilities have a food safety plan in place before putting food into interstate commerce and that companies submit to FDA all positive test results for finished food products.
• A provision for a nationwide track-back system.
• Civil monetary penalties for violating food safety laws.
• Country-of-origin labeling requirements for certain products.
• Whistleblower protection for food company employees who disclose violations of food safety laws.
• Expanded FDA access to farmer records to determine if they are complying with food safety laws.
• FDA-approved methods by which crops are raised and harvested.
• A full Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point Plan (HACCP plan) for every type of produce sold or processed.
Protections around farms, including fencing to protect crops.
• Removal of all hedgerows.
• Back-filling wetlands and ponds.
• Specialized fencing around crops.
• Creation of a sterilized buffer area around crops.
“This kind of regulation,” said Ortiz, “translates into additional cost and off-field man hours that small farms will not be able to afford or survive.”
The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition and the National Organic Council opposes the legislation, saying the $500 annual fees are too high for small processors. Congressman Scott Murphy (NY-20) approved the house bill, while Congressman Maurice Hinchey (NY-22) voted no.
Ortiz said the legislation grew out of a reaction to two E. coli outbreaks in California in 2006 which led to the deaths of several people. The first outbreak was in spinach and the second in lettuce, and both occurred within a three-month period. Ortiz contends that the outbreak was erroneously attributed to wild animals affecting the crops, thus leading to the stringent requirements listed above. More likely, she said, the outbreak was the result of contamination from “factory” farms.
Ooms said the safety concerns boil down to a lack of inspections of the larger facilities and processing facilities and not a lack of precautions by small farmers. “But you know politicians,” he said. “They always like to pass more laws. Really, they should propose do the inspections they are supposed to instead of passing new laws.”
Ooms also questioned the ability of the FDA to oversee food safety, stating the organization doesn’t have a good track record for safety with the products it already oversees.
While there is no specific date for a senate vote on the legislation, Senate experts have stated publicly that they expect a vote as early as this fall.
“My concern is that nobody knows about it, and yet it could destroy a way of life,” Ortiz said.