Each week at my farmstands in the Maryland area, we try to explain a peculiar situation to our customers. On the one hand, they want to buy our fresh fruit and vegetables. However, I tell them that in a few years, these will all be illegal to sell.
Because they have some degree of dirt and bacteria on them. The strawberries, for instance, have some trace amount of straw and soil on them, as do the tomatoes, beans and cucumbers. We do rinse them before leaving the farm, but we won't put them through a disinfectant bath nor pack them in antiseptic plastic containers and put "PLU" labels on them. That's not what consumers want at a farm market--nor is it something we'll ever be able to do.
Regulations for a new food law--the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA)--administered by the FDA are currently in the process of being finalized. Although the act originally had protections for family farmers like myself, we see those being ignored or phased out over time.
Common sense and following the data of recent food safety scares lead us to a very strong conclusion: The farther the food travels from the farm to the consumer, the more opportunities it has to become a food safety problem; the current cyclospora food poisoning problem in bagged salads is a good example.
This is one reason why 20 million consumers come to farmers' markets like ours and want fresh produce from our fields--preferably grown without pesticides, herbicides or GMO seeds. And sadly, protecting consumers from these synthetic perils is not addressed by FSMA.
Nor does the FDA address what is common sense to many scientists, doctors and parents: Our bodies are dependent on the good germs and bacteria. If anything, rather than developing the antiseptic, globalized, industrial-style food system FSMA seeks, we should be searching for ways to increase the amount of good bacteria in our bodies. In fact, fecal implants to repopulate the gut with bacteria are not science fiction--the medical profession is now performing them every day.
So, why is this bad science becoming the law of the land? First, it is partially due to corporate profit. Corporations depend on a global supply chain, and in doing so they are finding it increasingly difficult to deliver safe food. At the same time, they are losing market share to the local food systems that customers are demanding--witness the sharp increase in farmers' markets, community supported agriculture (CSAs), and restaurants offering "farm-to-fork" menus. To avoid legal liability, the corporations want to legitimize an industrial approach to sterilizing everything, without regard to the unnecessary and costly burden placed on local farmers. If your local farmer goes out of business trying to comply with the costs of hundreds of pages of new federal food safety regulations . Well, that just leaves more customers without a local alternative.
Second, there is the misguided advocacy of the consumer organizations, like the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI). They mean well, but they think that throwing regulatory words and paperwork burden at a problem will solve it. This approach is overly legalistic, and it ignores the realities of nature and the practical fact that over-regulating a sector that is not causing a problem--small farmers--cannot possibly lead to safer food.
And finally, there is this administration's commitment to the biotech industry. It's no accident that the FDA's deputy commissioner responsible for food safety, Michael R. Taylor, is a former Monsanto vice president. That partially explains why the "safe food" mandate does nothing to protect us from genetically engineered food and the harsh chemicals that are necessarily paired with it.
It will, however, put many of us farmers, who are committed to fresh, healthy and sustainably grown food, out of business. We note in a recent issue of Lancaster Farming (7/13/13), on page A10, that Don Bessemer, a third-generation farmer whose family farmed his land for 117 years in Akron, Ohio, has already closed his Bessemer Farm Market and specifically named the FDA and FSMA as the reasons. He had to lay off his 30 employees. He estimated that with the "many layers of government red tape and paperwork," the requirements would cost him at least $100,000 to comply with the regulations and $30,000 a year for inspections. He said in 117 years, they have never poisoned anyone, and "I can fight the bugs, I can fight the lack of rain, but when the guy comes with a clipboard, what are you going to do?"
We can all see the future. It is those antiseptic, theoretically bacteria-free plastic containers that will soon become the only way we will be able to shop for all of our produce.
And that should be an issue of public outrage.
Michael Tabor has been farming for 41 years and supplies Baltimore-area universities and colleges with GMO-free, sustainably grown produce. He is being honored this September for running his farmstand in the Adams Morgan neighborhood in Washington, D.C., for 40 years.
Nick Maravell serves as a farmer representative on the USDA's National Organic Standards Board and has farmed organically since 1979, raising grain, livestock and vegetables.