By Russell Libby
MOFGA Executive Director
If we were trying to design a system to promote food safety, I don’t think it would look anything like the legislation that’s moving through Congress now. It would focus regulatory attention on the companies that supply most of the food in the country. It would be comprehensive. It would focus on root causes.
That, unfortunately, is not what the debate in Washington has been like this year. So far it’s been a one-size-fits-all approach that doesn’t recognize the realities of the growing local, organic food system.
For decades, farmers have been encouraged to either get big enough to compete in national and international commodity markets, or to diversify, add value to their products, and build connections with their customers to survive in so-called specialty markets. The latest U.S. Census of Agriculture only confirms that division, with the so-called “farmers in the middle” shrinking in numbers, while very big farms and very small farms increased.
Now the entire strategy that most of us have built our farms and marketing approaches around is under pressure. Congress, the Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture are all considering food safety approaches that will make it harder for small, diversified and organic farmers to build viable businesses. And, of course, the irony is that it’s all happening because of a series of national and international food safety scandals that were caused by businesses that supposedly already operate under existing food safety laws.
To us, all the aspects of a farm – growing, getting ready for market, taking our products to markets that might be made up of individuals we know, chefs we’ve worked with for decades who ask us to grow special items for them, the store where our brand is an important asset for the retailer as well as for us – make up a complex whole. But under the legislation and proposed rules, we become more than farms – we become potential contamination points that need to take more and more steps to prove that our food is safe to eat.
There’s a political discussion that will continue to play out in national policy forums. But there’s also a discussion that is happening every day in our communities, and it’s equally important for us to be involved in that conversation so that we can continue to grow the kinds of food that people around us already want.
Here are some first steps we can all take:
• Build soil fertility, and rely on that to produce healthy crops.
• Talk with our buyers about how good farming systems help to produce safe food. We walk the fields. We harvest the crops. We raise the animals. We follow them all the way to your door.
• Make sure we do a good job. Keep fresh manure away from crops that will be harvested soon (generally, at least 90 days – and at least 120 days for crops that touch the soil). Use clean water to wash and to irrigate.
• Keep records of what we’re doing, where we buy our inputs, where we sell.
• Talk with other farmers about how to do a quality job.
• Integrate diversity into our farms – birds and bats are major allies in insect control; hedgerows help with pollinators.
Sterility is not the answer. We don’t need sterile fields producing sterile food.
Our food safety strategy has to be based on producing quality food, using the best possible growing methods, and talking with the people who eat our food about what we do and how we do it. That is the best food safety system we can create.
Meanwhile, MOFGA will continue to be engaged in the national policy discussions, trying to make it clear that we all need to be working toward a comprehensive, reasonable approach to food safety – while FDA, USDA, and Congress should focus on the big problems first.