The Common Good

Food Safety and Small Farm Justice

HR 875 The Food Safety Modernization Act of 2009 has gotten considerable attention lately and that is a very good thing, people should be concerned about food safety and more specifically how their food is produced. One thing I have learned as a Farmers Market vendor for the past 12 years, there is nothing like a food safety scare to move people to 'know their farmer". There are currently three food safety bills under consideration in the house, HR 759, HR 875, and HR 1332. HR 875 has drawn the most attention due to rumors it would outlaw farmers markets, organic farming, local, small scale etc. Not true, 875 will not do that. Seriously, there is way too much money to be made in organic food for corporate agribusiness to let that cash cow be outlawed.

So, what does HR 875 do and what doesn't it do that it should? Should it be supported? HR 875 is the strongest food safety bill under consideration, it addresses some, but not all, of the worst flaws in our massive food system.

  • Food processing plants must be inspected yearly, not every decade (if we are lucky)
  • Imported food must meet US safety standards, in the age of globalization this is a "no-brainer"
  • Food safety will have it's own focus, finally separated from FDA medical oversight
  • Farms will be required to have a food safety plan, but small farms could reasonably do this

These are all OK, but we need to remember that government has a penchant for doing the wrong thing in regard to food safety, backing the wrong type of food production unit and overall, the wrong food system. Corporate agribusiness has the political influence in Washington and we can bet they will not support any legislation that threatens their profit margin.

Large food processing facilities have a bad history when it comes to food safety problems, we need only look to the latest peanut butter contamination incident or any of the e-coli outbreaks over the past few years, large scale processing plants, infrequently inspected, moving too much product through the system too quickly.

This is one aspect of food safety that none of the current bills even mention, safe food processing takes time, well trained workers and the genuine desire to produce a safe product, not the genuine desire to make a profit first and foremost.

So any food safety bill must, if it is to make any dent in our broken food system, consider several things:

  • Food safety is more important than the profit margins of Dole, ConAgra, or any of the handful of multi-national corporations that own our food system.
  • Organic farmers are already highly regulated by USDA in regards to manure, composting, chemical use and animal ID, but they will be put under a "one size fits all" system that will be an unfair and a pointless burden to them.
  • Food safety legislation must address the real cause of food contamination, too many animals (and too much manure) raised in too small a space, mono-cultures of vegetables and the belief that bigger is better.
  • And finally, food safety is a community responsibility, if all the processor is concerned about is profit, food safety will suffer. If all the consumer is concerned about is cheap food, they will get cheap food, possibly contaminated food and at the expense of worker safety, compensation and dignity.

If we want a just and safe food system we must work for it. Small farmers, small processing plants local food systems are not the problem, Congress needs to know that.

Jim Goodman is an organic dairy farmer from Wisconsin and a WK Kellogg Food and Society Policy Fellow.

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