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Marler Blog Providing Commentary on Food Poisoning Outbreaks & Litigation

Marler – Talk with Phil Brasher: Safety rules burden smaller farmers?

The foodie/organic/raw/local/small farmer blogs are alive with conspiracy theories (real or imagined) about the reasons behind the moves in Congress to finally try to make our food supply safer.  Some see the evil hand of Monsanto, Cargill, etc., and their minions in Congress, as trying to crush the organic, small farmer by enacting “one size fits all” rules.  Others see that the administration and Congress have finally noticed that 76,000,000 of our citizens are sickened by food each year in the US and may actually try and do something.  True?   False?   Perhaps a little of both?

Last week I had a long chat with the Dean of Agriculture reporters, Phil Brasher, about the risks to “small-scale farmers and organic growers [who] say those standards can force them to choose between selling to supermarkets and schools or else following practices that degrade the soil and require more synthetic chemical … [that] … farmers worry that food-safety bills being considered in Congress could make matters more difficult.”  As I said:

Bill Marler, a Seattle lawyer who represents victims of food poisonings, said safety standards shouldn’t be weaker for small farms. Should kids get sick at school from contamination linked to a small farm, parents will ask why the farm didn’t meet the standards required of bigger suppliers, he said. "We all need to figure out a way, whether you’re a big player or a small player, that you’re treated fairly, that you’re inspected fairly and the product you’re producing, whether big or small, has the least chance of poisoning some kids," Marler said. "That’s not easy."

Not easy, but not impossible.  It is time to actually engage in a reasoned discussion instead of a shouting match across the blogs.  Food safety should be important whether you’re a small or large producer of food for supermarkets or schools.  The discussion should not be that food safety regulations should be less concerned about producing safe food if you’re a small farmer.  Small or large, producers of food should be concerned about what we feed our neighbors and kids.

Perhaps we need to look hard at stopping the environmental degradation caused by mass-produced, factory farming – overuse of pesticides, antibiotics and energy – in the production food?   Perhaps we need to look hard at localizing and regionalizing our food supply while at the same time making it safe and sustainable?  Perhaps we need to focus at changing how we get our food while still making it safe for parents who buy the food at the local supermarket or kids that eat in our school lunch rooms?

So, ideas?  I’ve been blogging about ideas for a long time.  Heck, I’ve even applied for a job – "Hey, Mr. President, call me, I’ll work for peanuts."

So, engage the President, FSIS, FDA and Congress in a dialog about how to fix the problem of creating a safe, sustainable, fair food supply.  For me, there can be no compromise on food safety – I have seen too much to give slack to Cargill or to a local farmer who supplies my grocery store or my kid’s school.  Sure, some rules will need to be adjusted to reflect economic realities.  However, regardless of your size, if you poison someone with your products it is wrong. 

We – all of us – need to figure out what our goals are and move fairly and openly towards solving the problems plaguing our food supply.  So, stop with the conspiracies and roll up your sleeves  and dig in the garden of politics, you might actually find it fruitful.

  • Judith

    Some of the ways in which these two ends of the spectrum differ are that (at our local market at least) the foods are not presented as pre-washed/ready to eat without washing or cooking, nor are they mass-packed with greens from dozens/scores of farms going together in one bag.
    And traceability is direct, point to point; “I got that lettuce from Bill.” And, if I know him (as I do, because it’s a local market)–I know that he just picked it all last night, or early this morning, and it has been in his cooler since. I also know where he lives, how he farms, and that his fields aren’t contaminated with effluvia from factory farms (there aren’t any in this end of the state.)
    Also, since this is local–I know who certifies organic, who registers, and with what agency. They post these signs, I ask them, etc. There is already great transparency on the local level.
    Requiring electronic tracking and datakeeping for these farmers is going to be a real sticking point; most of the growers at this market don’t have computers, (or if they do, no internet); many don’t have electricity. And since they are not shipping out of state, the need for electronic datakeeping in this example seems a bit much.
    The state health department could do more to inform growers of hygeine protocols; ideally a yearly workshop/refresher on washing, cold handling, etc. would be put on. And not just in Boise, either, but county by county or at least district by district. Plus, re-upping the moribund FFA programs in rural highschools could help address this sort of thing.
    Rural, small time growers don’t want to skimp, and they certainly don’t want to sicken anyone. They do however want the rules they need to comply with to be possible to comply with.
    Fees should be on a sliding scale, and record keeping, etc. could be as well, for those not shipping at all, or not out of town, or not out of state, etc. Clearly the longer food is held, and the more processed it is, the more time & opportunity there is for contamination.
    Too, there are other ways for such diseases to make us sick; I got Salmonella as a child, from a school field trip to a store where they showed us baby chicks and turtles. . I was gravely ill, so I am not dismissing the gravity of the situation.

  • Marymary

    My feelings are evolving on this issue, but not much. As someone who worked in food safety for several years, I tend to err on the side of everyone, including small producers following the rules that should apply to whatever it is they sell/produce. I’ll probably getted flamed for this, but I am not in favor of allowing home-baked goods, jams, jellies, dried herbs and the like to be sold at farmers’ markets. Those are relatively low-risk foods, but they are not no-risk. Furthermore, just as with small, local restaurants, small producers may not always want to be limited to what the law says or what their capacity should dictate. Someone making jams and jellies could quickly move onto making acidified foods, and local health dept. may not be able to effectively enforce the food code. A small produce operation may start out selling foods to individual consumers and then start selling to local restaurants, across state lines, etc.
    I think that some people have a tendency to idealize small producers as if their growing practices and good intentions will prevent them from causing any and all harm that could result from their foods being improperly handled. Good intentions are not, most people are ignorant of proper food safety practices. My experience showed me that many people don’t want to know about food safety, don’t care, and think it is all a matter of “common sense.”

  • Ann Schmechel

    The Food Defect Action Levels
    Levels of natural or unavoidable defects in foods
    that present no health hazards for humans
    U. S. Food and Drug Administration
    Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition
    May 1995; Revised March 1997; Revised May 1998;
    (Minor Editorial Edits, February 2005 & June 2005, September 2005, November 2005)
    I would not recommend reading the report sited above before eating.
    The current regulations (see link) allow a certain percentage of many things including, but not limited to, rodent fecal material found during an inspection. Should we, perhaps, hold the regulatory agencies to a higher standard instead of small farms and businesses? I realize that large grain elevators and huge storage/processing centers can’t be completely clean, but I can’t image how the regulation sited in the food safety improvement bills is really going fix such low quality of standard that has already been set.
    It has been my experience that if the food is supplied by a local source and they are fairly small, they tend to have better control and a cleaner environment for storage and processing. Their bottom line is dictated by the quality and one mistake or case of food poisoning is going to basically destroy their reputation and by default their business, making it self-regulated in that sense.
    I eat at local places run by people I know and who know me because of the same ‘self-regulation’ theory. One case of bad food and they would be out of business. The cost of regulation is going to put these small safe establishments out of business but, as sited on this site: http://www.about-hepatitis.com/hepatitis_outbreaks these companies will just keep producing what they produce, Hepatitis A outbreaks and all.

  • Ann Schmechel

    This is a very sound, smart and reasonable approach! I applaud you!
    “Perhaps we need to look hard at stopping the environmental degradation caused by mass-produced, factory farming ‚Äì overuse of pesticides, antibiotics and energy ‚Äì in the production food? Perhaps we need to look hard at localizing and regionalizing our food supply while at the same time making it safe and sustainable? Perhaps we need to focus at changing how we get our food while still making it safe for parents who buy the food at the local supermarket or kids that eat in our school lunch rooms?”
    I haven’t done any statistical analysis, but in the recall lists for peanut butter products I looked at, it seemed like the small stubborn, unconventional organic market came out the clear winner on the ‘safe’ factor.
    Food safety is very important and looking at what works as a starting point is starting with solutions. That seems like a good way to approach any problem.