Small farmer advocacy groups disagree over fallout of Food Safety Modernization Act

Matthew Boyle Investigative Reporter
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Small farmer advocacy groups disagree over what the Food Safety Modernization Act (SB 510), a measure that  would substantially increase the power and reach of the Food and Drug Administration, will mean for small farmers if passed by the Senate Tuesday.

SB 510 would allow the FDA to mandate that a company recall a food product it suspects is infected, which is something the agency hasn’t had the ability to do in the past. The bill also expands the FDA’s inspection powers, and would force food producers to comply with several new bureaucratic requirements, including opening their production facilities to more FDA inspections officers and following new in-depth inspection procedures.

On Monday night, senators voted to 69-26 in favor of a move for cloture on the bill, a way to circumvent the filibuster. The vote came on the heals the passage of the Tester-Hagan amendment, which provides exemptions and special provisions for farms that make less than $500,000 annually, meaning that such farms wouldn’t have to follow the same in-depth inspection requirements factory farms would. The amendment was proposed by Democratic Montana Sen. Jon Tester and Democratic North Carolina Sen. Kay Hagan in response to several small farm lobbying groups that argued the original bill would unintentionally hit small farmers, family farmers and local farmers hard with “one-size-fits-all” regulations.

National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition policy director Ferd Hoefner told The Daily Caller that the Tester-Hagan amendment was key to his organization finally supporting the bill. NSAC is now in favor of SB 510, after having wavered on it for a long time. He said the Tester-Hagan amendment adds extra protections for small farms and for direct-to-consumer farmers, like those who farm for local farmers’ markets.

“They have a choice: they can either comply with state regulation or an FDA regulation that’s appropriate to their scale,” Hoefner said in a phone interview. “That will be new and different for most of them.”

In terms of giving the FDA recall mandate authority, something that has infuriated Oklahoma Republican Sen. Tom Coburn, Hoefner told TheDC he expects the FDA to only use recall power in emergencies.

“The government could mandate a recall [under the proposed bill],” Hoefner said. “Whether they would actually use that in its entirety remains to be seen. I think they would continue to do the same thing and ask for a voluntary recall as a first approach.”

Pete Kennedy, the president of the Farm to Consumer Legal Defense Fund, another small farm advocacy group, is opposed to the bill in its entirety, even with the Tester-Hagan amendment attached.

“The Tester-Hagan amendment is an improvement on the bill, but I think it’s still fundamentally flawed,” Kennedy told TheDC. “I think over time the powers given by the bill could possibly whittle away at the protection provided by Tester-Hagan, they’ll have broad power, and unfortunately under their existing power, what we see right now they seem to have three particular targets, which are raw milk, raw cheese, and supplements.”

Kennedy is wary of the $500,000 line the Tester-Hagan amendment draws, saying that it puts those just above it at a disadvantage.

“Say you’re not protected by the Tester amendment, you make between $500,000 and $750,000 a year, you’re subject to these produce standards or these safety plans, it’ll be easier for the big companies to comply, they’ll have economies of scale. I mean, you’re still regarded as — a lot of food producers are regarded as small businesses if they’re under $750,000, and I think they’ll find it more difficult to comply with some of the requirements in the bill,” he said.

Kennedy told TheDC that he expects prices of food products to rise for consumers, especially because their “freedom of choice” will decline.

“It might not happen right away, the FDA has a lot of rulemaking power under this bill,” Kennedy said. “I mean, the rulemaking process could take two or three years before it’s finally complete. But, I think once you see the rulemaking process come to an end, there are going to be some of these what I call local food producers that will not be able to comply with the requirements of the bill.”

John Peck, the executive director of Family Farm Defenders, yet another small farm advocacy group, has a different take on the bill. Peck thinks the bill is an attempt by big companies like Monsanto, Kellogg and General Mills to shift liability for infected food products from their production facilities back to farmers.

“There are four companies that control pretty much every food item that you eat,” Peck said in a phone interview. “There’s no free market in food. The only place you really find a free market is at the farmers market.”

Peck thinks SB 510 is being pushed on purely factory-farming motives, but said Family Farm Defenders is okay with the bill now that the Tester-Hagan amendment is attached. He doubts, though, that excess costs will end up hitting consumers, saying that he instead expects big companies, with economies of scale, to force any excess costs from the regulation back onto the backs of farmers.

But, unlike Kennedy, Peck trusts the FDA to make the right decisions and not abuse any newly delegated power.

Peck added that the Tester-Hagan amendment allows for people to have gardens in their backyards without complying with new regulations and will allow for most small farmers’ market farms to continue operating without any problems. That was a widespread fear of the bill, with rumors circulating on the Internet about how people would not be able to tend personal gardens if the bill passed.