Small Farms Challenge Expansion of FDA's Authority

(Wall Street Journal, MD)



Small to mid-size farms and those growing organic foods are challenging the congressional effort to expand the Food and Drug Administration's food-safety powers.


The farmers say food-safety legislation that passed the Energy and Commerce Committee in June gives the FDA authority to set production standards on their farms and charge them the same registration fees large food processors would be required to pay. The agency, they fear, could also require them to keep more records so contaminated products could be traced more easily.


"I'm not against food safety if we have a problem,'' said Nick Maravell, who has a 165-acre organic farm here, about 40 miles from Washington, D.C. He said he already keeps detailed records to comply with existing U.S. Department of Agriculture rules for organic products. "To do it again would be time- and cost-sensitive," he said.


Smaller farmers aren't alone. Cattle ranchers and grain farmers, already regulated by USDA, don't want to be subjected to an overlay of FDA food-safety rules.


The legislation exempts farms and other facilities regulated by the USDA, which oversees the safety of meat, poultry and eggs. But the farmers say the bill's language is ambiguous, partly because many farms do more than grow crops or raise livestock. Mr. Maravell, for example, grows and processes animal feed.


The pushback from farmers and ranchers fueled a turf battle in the House between the Energy and Commerce Committee, which oversees the FDA, and the Agriculture Committee, which oversees the USDA.


Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin C. Peterson (D., Minn.) earlier this month threatened to hold hearings to stop the bill from reaching a full House vote, and staff members from the two committees have been working on language to clarify which farms would be regulated under the FDA legislation. An Agriculture Committee aide said Monday that staff members from the two committees are reviewing language in the hopes of finalizing an agreement. But that may -- or may not -- satisfy farmers and ranchers.


The House could take up the legislation as early as this week. Similar legislation has been introduced in the Senate, but it is unclear when that chamber will act. The measures were introduced early in the new Congress after a string of food-borne illnesses involving spinach, lettuce, peanut butter and hot peppers and other foods.


Major consumer groups along with the Grocery Manufacturers Association, which represents large food makers and processors, and United Fresh Produce Association, which represents the fresh-produce industry, largely support the legislation. Food companies say it would help boost consumer confidence in the aftermath of E. coli, salmonella and other outbreaks.


"The outbreaks clearly demonstrate a number of food-safety problems originate on the farm,'' said Caroline Smith DeWaal, food-safety director at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, an advocacy group in Washington. "It's critically important that food-safety measures to prevent contamination of food and vegetables start on the farm and continue all the way through processing.''


Small farmers, however, fear unintended consequences. "I'm a little guy," said Mr. Maravell. "They are assuming I'm doing something like the Salinas Valley." An E. coli outbreak involving spinach grown in California's Salinas Valley led to a nationwide recall in 2006.


Mike Taylor, who advises FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg on food safety, said farmers shouldn't be concerned.  He said the FDA will consider the needs of small producers and work with the USDA and other state and federal agencies to carry out the new responsibilities. The agency would also solicit public and food industry comment before making its regulations, Mr. Taylor said.


"The bill has been responsive to the concerns of the farm community to make the boundaries clear,'' he said. "This is not a one-size-fits-all new system.'' 7-27-09




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