Babysitting, FDA Style


Today’s headline from the New York Times: “F.D.A. Offers Broad New Rules to Fight Food Contamination.” Usually me and the NYT jive pretty well. We’re not a perfect match, but this time I’m the Red Sox to Stephanie Strom’s (and her editors’) Yankees. These new rules are a huge step back for small farmers and their future in the United States.

Basically, the new regulations will institute several policies designed to prevent pathogens from contaminating food. The rules call for things like installing bathrooms in fields for workers, irrigation requirements, and “ensuring that foods are cooked at temperatures high enough to kill bacteria.” The FDA, long reactionary instead of anticipatory, is trying to get ahead of the eight ball. How could anyone oppose a law that will make people safer and keep them from getting sick? Oh, easily. Here’s how:

I have three major problems with these rules. They’ll put small farmers out of business, destroy the nutritional value of the food they’re meant to protect, or both. These are serious threats to public health and, in fact, make us less safe. Job well done, FDA.

Imagine, for a moment, that you’re a small lettuce grower in California. You produce enough to make ends meet and keep food on the table. With a stroke of a pen, now you’ve got to rent and pay maintenance costs on toilets in your fields for your workers. Even if you’ve never had a problem with contamination and you know and trust your workers not to pee on the arugula, you must comply. This could be a crippling blow to you and your farm. At the very least, it will raise your costs and therefore prices. Who will feel the brunt of this? The small guys that can’t take advantage of economies of scale when it comes to renting port-o-johns. This is why lettuce at the farmers’ market is expensive! Frankly, this also screams of collusion between the FDA and larger producers. Land of opportunity, right?

If you’re still with me, I probably don’t have to explain why fewer small local farms is a bad thing. But just in case, the gist of it is: more fruits and veggies produced far away will be consumed, adding food miles by the truckload (pun very much intended) and more food will be treated with irradiation to keep it “fresh” for the journey. I’ll have the uranium on the side, thanks.

On the second point, cooking raw ingredients (like peanuts) to ever-higher temperatures destroys their nutritional value. We’ve been eating raw peanuts for much longer than this has been a problem. Continuing the sports analogy, how have we ever survived an entire baseball game? I know I’ve been to some that felt like they’d kill me, but that didn’t have anything to do with the peanuts.

But what’s most amazing is how obvious this should be. It says it right in the title! “Broad New Rules” just don’t work if we’re going to have many different sizes of farms. The small guys just can’t hang with the big ones when it comes to installing expensive infrastructure.

The FDA should be focused on accountability and transparency in the system for every size producer. Conveniently, a great system exists when you buy your lettuce directly from the gal who grew it. It’s the time-honored tradition of “looking her in the eye.”

Don’t make farmers jump through more hoops. Let consumers decide if they trust the lettuce from their farmer, or the bag that it comes in.

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    1. Mom M says:

      I wonder if there is a way that small farmers can join together to speak with one voice and therefore increase the likelihood of being heard. This does seem to be a serious problem. Here in VT the small farm is much appreciated, but this will threaten continuation. Very important message.

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