CSI: Crime Scene Investigation has been the most popular television show on earth for a couple of years now. Its variants include geographic specific investigations into Miami and New York, as well as a really, really good looking “Special Victims Unit.”
But why not go where no cop shop has gone before? How about CSI: Agriculture?
When the US House of Representatives passed HR 2749 (the Food Safety Enhancement Act of 2009) last week, it did so with the intent of giving teeth to a Food and Drug Administration that has traditionally been all gums when it comes to enforcing food safety.
Perhaps now is the time to dramatize a sexy team of elite scientist cops cracking open incidents of E coli 0157 outbreaks and using their iPhones to analyze antibiotic resistant bacteria strains.
OK, so the House bill, as worded, won’t exactly provide FDA agents with Glocks and good looks, but it will allow for action such as government-mandated recalls of suspect foods, rather than reliance on industry to voluntarily remove tainted foodstuffs. When Frontera Produce, for example, recalled salmonella-tainted cilantro from retailers in Texas, Oklahoma, Colorado, Louisiana and New Mexico on July 28, the only role the FDA played was to issue a press release.
More and better safety, inspection and enforcement policies have been a longtime coming, according to New Mexico farmer Steve Warshawer. But HR 2749 follows a one-size-fits-all theory that heavily favors big agriculture and potentially leaves small, regional food producers struggling to survive.
One example of FDA and lawmakers’ failure to understand the growing but precarious state of small-scale farming is in a new fee structure proposed to help offset the costs of increased inspection activity. It’s a flat $500 annually, regardless of the size of operation. While there are some exemptions for direct sales, any food processing at all might trigger the fee. The Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund puts it this way: “It is not equitable for a local grandmother making jam from farmers’ excess fruit to have to pay the same fee as a Heinz processing plant.”
The bill goes on to put the same regulatory burdens on small, diversified farms as it does on giant mono-cropping operations, and offers similar insensitivity to scale in enforcing traceability requirements.
As the bill is written, “It absolutely is a blow to promoting regional agriculture and food systems,” Santa Fe Alliance Executive Director Vicki Pozzebon says. “Some of our local farmers can barely afford the gas to get to market, let alone pay a $500 registration fee. Small local farmers have difficulty now finding access to capital to expand their operations or buy equipment. How would they afford to pay for tracking systems?”
Warshawer still sees hope for amending the bill in the US Senate. He’s been working with members from the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition and the National Organic Coalition to draw attention to the bill’s failings. And, he says, at least New Mexico’s Democratic congressional delegation understands the issues. US Sens. Jeff Bingaman and Tom Udall are “old hands at this,” Warshawer says, and Reps. Ben Ray Luján, Martin Heinrich and Harry Teague all voted against the bill (and against the Democratic establishment) because they see the downsides for New Mexico farmers and small food processors.
“I’m proud of our New Mexico reps, who put principles above the pure exercise of power,” Warshawer says.
Small, organic farms want and need food accountability as much as anyone, Warshawer adds, but rushing a vaguely worded safety bill isn’t going to be the fix that saves American food production.
“We have a broken system, neglected for years, fragmented and full of mixed mandates, and a lot of distrust among stakeholders,” he says. “Consumers suffer, industry suffers, farms of all sizes suffer. The system is not working.”