Food Safety Bills Could Hurt Organic Farmers

Reforms to our food system are needed, but not at the expense of sustainable agriculture.

March 20, 2009

A farewell to farms? If we don't speak up, new regs could put organic farmers out of business.

RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—The recent peanut butter contamination scandal is just the latest evidence showing how broken our food system is. Under enormous pressure to do something about it, Congress has introduced 6 food safety bills that could start cleaning up the mess—or put sustainable farmers out of business. “Clearly, it’s a hot topic,” says Patty Lovera, assistant director at Food & Water Watch, a consumer-safety watchdog in Washington, DC “But we think creating those [food safety] standards should be done in a thoughtful way.”


THE DETAILS: Of the 6 bills, H.R. 875 (the Food Safety Modernization Act) introduced by Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), is getting the most attention. It calls for the splitting of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) into two agencies—one for monitoring food safety and another for overseeing drugs and medical devices. The bill also stipulates that imported food would have to meet the same standards as food produced in the U.S. If passed, it wouldn’t regulate seed, apply more rules to farmer’s markets, or tell you what you can or can’t plant in your backyard garden. However, as the legislative process moves forward, it’s important for consumers to scrutinize the proposed guidelines to make sure they don’t place impossible burdens on small, organic, and sustainable farmers.

Two of the other major bills (S. 425 and H.R. 814) focus on food traceability. The latter would in effect make the current voluntary and controversial National Animal Identification System mandatory, forcing farmers to microchip their animals and buy expensive tracking devices. The government intervention is extremely unpopular among small farmers.

The other 3 bills (H.R. 875, H.R. 759, and HR 1332) focus on food safety issues, too, but they don’t go as far as the Food Safety Modernization Act in calling for the FDA to break up into two pieces.

WHAT IT MEANS: When it comes to regulation, one size does not fit all—and in farming, it’s almost always tailored to the needs of the largest industrialized operations. It’s clear that food safety reform is needed, and we say having that on the agenda of Congress is a good thing. What worries the organic community is that new rules will be doable for huge agribusiness, but not for diversified small farmers who grow and raise a little bit of everything.

It’s your food, and through the democratic process, you have a say in how it’s regulated:

• Stay in touch with your reps. It’s unlikely any of these bills will be rushed through Congress, explains Lovera. Your best bet in the meantime? Stay in touch with your elected representatives. Let them know you want a more sound food system, but one that won’t drive out organic producers, who are already taking many steps to bring you safer food. “We are asking Congress, and suggesting stakeholders in the organic community and local-food movement petition Congress, to make sure the needed regulation is on corporate agribusiness,” says Mark Kastel, cofounder of the Cornucopia Institute, a small farmers advocacy group. “Small, high-quality food producers are already at a competitive disadvantage,” he adds. “They’re part of the solution, and it would be shame for them to be punitively threatened under new regulations.” You can join the voices calling for fairness by contacting your senator or congressperson. Enter each bill’s number at to track its progress and get in touch with its sponsors.

• Check back with us. The major proposals in these bills, particularly the scheme to break up the FDA, make it unlikely any will be passed in a matter of 2 weeks, as some alarmist online videos suggest. But, warns Kastel, “We’re talking about legislation proposed in Congress right now that’s fairly broad in nature. Devil is in the details.” will follow the process and fill you in as those details take shape.

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