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Environmental Op-Ed Series: Food Safety Bill Could Hurt Minnesota's Entrepreneurs

May 05, 2010 By Jemma Brown, Student, Macalester College
John Mesko of Princeton, Minnesota, is wary of Senate Bill S.510: the Food Safety Modernization Act.  Mesko, the owner of Lighthouse Farm and the executive director of the Sustainable Farming Association of Minnesota, believes that, if passed, the bill will inhibit fresh food producers.

"I believe that the production of food is a noble calling, we ought not to put so many barriers on farmers who want to enter the market.  Someone ought to be able to make a substantial portion, if not all of their living by selling food," he said.
Senator Richard Durbin, D-Ill., introduced the Food Safety Modernization Act, which may be voted on in the next few weeks, after several outbreaks of food borne illnesses.  The intended purpose of the bill is good: to preemptively ward off food contamination by increasing the frequency of food facility inspections and by tightening safety standards. Its implementation, however, will place a significant financial burden on America's small food companies and start-up entrepreneurs,
At a press conference in April, Senator Jon Tester of Montana described S.510 as "really taking a punch at people who don't need to have a punch taken at them." In its current form, S.510 does not discriminate between multi-million dollar agricultural conglomerates and small-scale businesses.  Every food processing facility would be required to pay the FDA an annual fee as well as submit extensive paperwork analyzing the safety of their operation.  For small family-run businesses like Mesko's, these financial and administrative burdens could be fatal. 

The "one-size-fits-all" approach to legislation presented by S.510 is precisely the kind of lawmaking that could inhibit rather than promote the production of safe food.  In 2009, the major food outbreaks that triggered the creation of S.510 originated in plants of industry giants such as Nestlé and Cargill--not in crates of strawberries and potatoes sold by family farmers or at local food markets.  While food produced on small farms and processed in small plants is susceptible to contamination that can cause food borne illnesses, the magnitude of such problems are far greater--and affect greater numbers of people--when they occur in large, industrial-scale food processing operations. 

Food produced on small farms and processed at local plants tends to be less susceptible to contamination because it rarely comes into contact with food from other areas. In comparison, food processed in large facilities may commingle with goods from several states or nations. The traceability and transparency of these relationships from farm to consumer are important in ensuring food safety. This personal accountability is a more valuable weapon in the fight against food borne illnesses than any FDA inspection ever could be.

In order to continue advocating for safe, contaminant-free food while keeping the variegated needs of America's diverse farming and food production operations in mind, Senate Bill S.510 should be amended to include regulations that are tiered according to the annual volume of food products a business manufactures or sells.  Senator Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., has proposed The Growing Safe Food Act amendment to address small farmers' and small business owners' concerns.   (Learn more about the Growing Safe Food Act, proposed revisions to S.510, and how to take further action by visiting the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition's Website.)

With thousands of Americans suffering from food borne illnesses every year, it is undeniable that food safety standards in the United States are in need of radical overhaul.  However, this transformation must concentrate on high-risk food production sites and have a fee structure that works for businesses of all sizes to enact cost effective change without devastating the livelihood of our nation's small business and farm operators.

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