Early in October, the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition launched a campaign to fix new safety regulations set down in the Food Safety Modernization Act of 2010. The federal Food and Drug Administration was taking public comments on the revised standards at the time, and the NSAC sought to inform as many people as possible about the major impacts of those revisions on small-scale farms across the country.
The FDA has since closed public comment, and farmers nationwide are waiting to see what changesif anythe agency makes in response to nearly 20,000 written comments. The concern is serious in western Montana. Bonnie Buckingham, executive director of the Community Food & Agriculture Coalition, says that for small farms in the Missoula area, the FDA's proposals are "onerous to the point of just being unaffordable."
"At a time when people are wanting more local food, wanting to know their farmer, wanting to really connect with their food and where it comes from," Buckingham says, "this is a rather big blow."
Sen. Jon Tester drafted a letter last month taking aim at the FDA for its one-size-fits-all approach, requesting, among other things, that the agency soften the terms used to determine which small farms qualify for exemptions. Those exemptions were created to apply "common-sense rules for food safety at small operations that would still allow small, local markets and farms to flourish," Tester wrote. "We need more small farms and facilities, not fewer, and these proposed rules must not stymie this local economic growth."
Other areas of concern include stricter testing of water sources for diseases like E. coli that could dramatically increase the cost of even small-farm operations. The FDA is also recommending lengthening the required time between manure application and crop harvest to nine months, an added challenge in Montana's already short growing season.
Dave Prather, general manager of the Western Montana Growers Cooperative, hopes the FDA heeds the feedback and revisit its proposals. As written, he says, the new regulations would overburden small farmers to the point of driving some out of business. Consumers could see an increase in the price of locally grown foods and a reduction in the amount available.
"The big guys will be okay," Prather says. "They just have to shore up a few things. But smaller producers, if they're not going to qualify under any exemptions, are going to have a tough time."This story was updated Thursday, Dec. 5, to correctly identify the Community Food & Agriculture Coalition