Steve Bemis worked in corporate law for 35 years and for the last several years with the Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund advocating for greater access to local foods, especially raw milk. Shown here with his favorite John Deere diesel, Steve bales round and square hay for local farmers. A frequent commentator on The Complete Patient (www.thecompletepatient.com), he shares his thoughts on proposed food safety legislation.
The current rush in Washington to spread a single new food safety umbrella over America’s food supply will only help if things needing fixed, get fixed and those not needing fixed, are freed. Small farmers fall into the latter category. Trapped in a fragmented food safety system grown up in the decades since Sinclair’s The Jungle, suppliers of local food are captive to concepts and procedures designed for the industrial-scale agriculture system and in the case of raw milk, outdated notions of risk.
There is precedent in both federal and many state laws to just exempt small farms. The federal Egg Products Inspection Act provides for exemption of egg sales by farmers who sell eggs of their own production direct to consumers, as well as sales of eggs from flocks of 3000 or fewer birds (regardless of to whom the eggs are sold). Michigan’s Egg Law, dating to 1963, specifically exempts farm to consumer egg sales, and the state’s Food Law similarly exempts uncut vegetable sales. These are steps in the right direction. Local food customers and the farmers who supply them can handle their freedom! I suggest federal (and corresponding state) exemptions for small farms milking 100 or fewer cows, and similarly scaled exemptions covering chicken, pork, beef and other meats and produce.
An approach utilizing exemptions will free small operations of burdensome overhead and inspections, and will free up scarce regulatory resources and inspectors for the large businesses whose scale and potential for widespread damage require greater attention. The tight feedback loop between farmers and local customers has built-in integrity and self-regulatory strengths. If there’s a problem, pick up the phone and call the farmer. A couple of calls warns him or her that a phone-tree (or email) recall should be implemented. Fast. Simple. Effective. Additional incentives to maintain quality exist in the risk of lawsuit if you make someone really sick, and the corollary of risk which is the cost of insurance. Farmers can adopt voluntary self-regulation in the form of “best practice” standards to assist in marketing and to further bolster the farmer/consumer relationship.
The alternative to freeing up the local food system will be increased (perhaps, crippling) complexity in the safety laws which are being developed. The drum-beat of national food recalls suggests that the problems exist in the industrial system. Greater nutrition and quality in local foods raised organically from healthy soils suggest that the solutions may well exist in the local food system. We must be free to access foods of our choice at an accessible price. Attempting to draft detailed provisions which address the radically different scales of big and small farms with their very different needs will at best lead to frustration and delay, and at worst will lead to a results, oppressive in the extreme, where the smalls are outgunned by the bigs.
Thus, the recommendation is to recognize these freedoms, and simply exempt us.
Note from Kimberly:
Please forward this common sense advice to the politicians representing you in Washington. Thanks, Steve for the excellent insight on a very important issue.
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