Farmers from Vermont and New Hampshire spoke out today against new food safety rules being implemented by the FDA. Many at the public hearing in Hanover told FDA officials that the rules are unnecessary and burdensome.
Right off the bat, FDA’s Deputy Commissioner for Food, Mike Taylor, tried to reassure the standing-room only audience that many small farms would be exempt from the proposed rules governing the growing, harvesting, packing, and storing of raw fruits and vegetables. The rules, he said, are still a work in progress and would possibly apply only to farms that generate $500,000 or more in yearly sales. They would not affect foods that are usually not consumed raw—like potatoes. Taylor said the law behind the rules was passed after a series of widely publicized food-borne illnesses.
“There was a demand from both the industry and the consumer community that there would be a law that would codify this and give us the ability to vouch to the markets and to international markets as well, for the safety of food grown in this country,” Taylor told the audience of about 150 people.
But Jake Guest, who owns Kildeer Farm in Norwich, questioned the need for the law, citing statistics from the Centers for Disease Control showing a relatively low incidence of food-borne deaths.
“How can we possibly be discussing a risk factor of one in a 150 million? It doesn’t make any sense at all,” Guest said.
FDA officials answered that a lot of food poisoning goes unreported. But even farmers who saw the need for some regulation argued that the rules governing, for example, irrigation and composting, are too complex and expensive. Lockwood Sprague, a farmer from Plainfield, NH, said his costs would go up $12,000 for a 16-week season. He said many farmers would be forced to shrink their business to get under the yearly $500,000 trigger for the law.
“How do we absorb the cost of this? We try to get under. What are we going to do to get our numbers down? We have to get leaner and meaner and in our particular situation, we provide jobs either part or full time to 25 or 30 people annually” Sprague said.
He said he might have to lay some of those workers off. Other critics of the rules worried that they could apply to small farms that are part of a larger cooperative. Still others warned that the law would put farmers making marginal profits out of business.
In the two and a half hour hearing, only one speaker supported the law. Gabrielle Meunier, of South Burlington, is a food safety advocate whose child became seriously ill in 2008 after consuming contaminated peanuts. She urged the FDA to move ahead on implementation.
“So I’m hopeful now more than ever that with the proposed regulations and the law’s key provisions fewer children will scream out in pain all because of something they ate,” Meunier said.
But the toxic peanuts her son ate, several farmers pointed out after the hearing, didn’t come from Vermont.
Many left the rooms with more questions than answers. Vermont Agriculture Secretary Chuck Ross says the state hasn’t taken a position on the rules and does not know how many farms would be affected by them. The New England Farmers Union says in a press release that "the rules have the potential to shut New England's farmers out of important market opportunities and restrict consumer access to fresh fruits and vegetables and locally produced, on-farm-value added products.
The FDA is inviting comments until November 16.