Food safety regulations could put crunch on some farmers

srocco@bradenton.comNovember 14, 2013 

MANATEE -- New federal food safety regulations have some growers around Florida concerned that added costs could force them out of business.

After several potentially deadly E.coli and salmonella outbreaks in recent years, President Barack Obama signed the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) into law on Jan. 4, 2011, the first major food safety overhaul since 1938.

The law is designed to better regulate produce and to give the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) the authority to require more inspections, prevent and recall contaminated food and impose stricter rules over imported food.

According to the FDA, one in six Americans gets sick and 3,000 die each year from

food-borne illness. In an attempt to reduce those numbers, the FDA will roll out a regulatory plan that will apply to produce farms.

But experts say FSMA could force small farmers out of business by requiring them to implement expensive programs and could make the harvesting of organic foods difficult and costly.

The public comment period for FSMA will close Friday and the law will be implemented by 2015. Manatee farmers, joined by others across the nation, are scrambling to get their voices heard.

"Much in the way of added expense will be thrust upon growers, as overall compliance costs for FSMA will be significant, and a major difficulty is that growers will have to absorb the costs of implementing these regulations," said Mike Aerts, director of marketing and membership at the Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association, in an e-mail. "Producers will not be able to pass these costs on."

For example, the proposed rule requires ramped up water testing every seven days. The cost requirements of the water provisions of FSMA alone range between $48 and $59 million nationally, Aerts said. There will also be further record-keeping costs to comply with the provisions.

"It's important to note that these are, in fact, proposed requirements and not final," said Sue Challis, spokesperson for the FDA's Office of Food and Veterinary Medicine, in an e-mail. "Things will change based on input, research results, and substantive comments from growers and others. Through our extensive outreach and listening sessions with growers in various parts of the country, we've found that there is a lot of room for continuing dialogue on some of the proposals ..."

The FDA is proposing that some growers could use alternatives as long as there is credible science proving that the alternative meets the FDA's standards of public health protection, Challis added.

And FSMA does offer some wiggle room for smaller farms.

The proposed rule states that farms with average food sales less than $25,000 per year are not subject to the regulations. And farms that make less than $500,000 in food sales per year and sell to restaurants or retail establishments in the same state or not more than 275 miles from the farm are also exempt.

But growers are still worried.

Marty Mesh, executive director of Florida Organic Growers, a nonprofit dedicated to supporting and promoting sustainable agriculture, says the FSMA regulations should be applied to large farming operations, but aren't necessary for small mom-and-pop businesses.

"The lettuce that a farmer harvests and takes to the farmers market on Saturdays -- that scale and that risk is far different than buying salad at a big grocery store," Mesh said.

There are food-borne illnesses, Mesh said, because bad lettuce and carrots, for example, are taken from hundreds of large farms to a common processing facility where it is bagged and shipped across the country.

"The people going to farmers markets deserve safe food, but the FDA should make FSMA scale-appropriate and risk-based," Mesh said.

Farmers have already been practicing many of the FSMA requirements for years, but certain components will burden farmers.

For example, organic growers typically wait 90 to 120 days to harvest their crop after manure is spread. Under the proposed rule, growers would be required to wait nine months from the time they spread manure until they can sell their product, throwing off production time and creating revenue loss.

But some area farms aren't taking the proposed mandates personally.

Billy Heller, chief operating officer of Pacific Tomato Growers in Palmetto, said there's no for or against -- the rules are just part of the job.

"Farmers are responsible for taking care of the land they farm and taking care of the people who buy their product. How can anyone argue with that?" he said. "If you want to be in business, this is what you have to do."

To make a comment on FSMA, visit www.regulations.gov.

Sabrina Rocco, East Manatee reporter, can be reached at (941) 745-7024. Follow her on Twitter @sabrinarocco.

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