In an attempt to update the nation’s food safety laws for the first time in more than 70 years, the United States Food and Drug Administration has proposed a sweeping new set of rules that would alter everything from the frequency of farm inspections to the mandated length of time between manure application and vegetable harvesting.

The goal is to protect people from food borne illnesses, which sicken 1.6 million Americans every year, send 128,000 to the hospital and kill 3,000.

But the proposed Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) has raised concerns among many critics, who fear that the new regulations would be too burdensome for small farmers, making it harder and more expensive to grow organic foods.

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As we approach the Nov. 22 deadline for open comments on the first draft of the law, what would the FSMA mean for consumers?

The answer is complicated and hard to predict, experts said, but there are plenty of reasons to push for changes, said Rebecca Klein, Public Health and Agriculture Policy Project Director at the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future in Baltimore.

At particular risk, Klein said, is the vibrant, local and sustainable community-based farm culture that has been building strength around the country in the form of CSAs, farm stands, food hubs and farm-to-school programs.

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Under the new rules, farmers who jarred jam for sale at roadside stands or chopped and packaged carrots for schools would be classified as processing facilities, Klein said, and that would subject them to a higher standard of regulation. Unable to afford the time and money needed to comply with rigid standards -- by for example, installing all stainless steel sinks and registering a written food-safety plan with the FDA -- many farmers would likely quit trying.

“There was a young farmer I was talking to at a conference recently who said, ‘The way I interpret these rules, I feel like the FDA is telling me I can’t farm the way I want to farm, so basically I don’t want to farm,’” Klein said. “A lot of farmers choose farming because they like the independent lifestyle. Most are very cautious and it’s not like they are trying to avoid making food safe. But they may try to avoid having someone from the FDA come on their farm all the time.”

Some of the new rules are also sparking worry among people who support organic and sustainable farming practices that prioritize healthy soil as well as the health of wildlife and nearby ecosystems, explains the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition website, which also offers instructions on how to submit comments to the FDA. Comments are due November 22.

As organic food grows in popularity, will organic farmed be stifled by new food safety rules?Corbis

One of the provisions that critics have focused on would require farmers to wait nine months to harvest crops after applying manure or compost. The idea is to protect the food supply from pathogens in manure, but organic farmers who regularly use those natural fertilizers say that nine months is far too long to make crops viable. Current organic guidelines suggest a four-month wait. Critics also argue that there is no scientific evidence to support nine months as the key “safe” window of time.

If the nine-month rule passes, Klein said, it would put pressure on farmers to use synthetic fertilizers. That, in turn, could reduce the supply of organic foods produced by local, small-scale farmers and force buyers to choose between imported organics from countries plagued by air pollution or regional food grown with synthetic chemicals.

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Other provisions require farmers to test water that runs off from their farms and to prevent animals from getting too close to food crops. Rules like those could potentially harm conservation efforts, Klein said, by encouraging farmers to take actions like removing vegetation from nearby waterways. That would eliminate important wildlife habitats and reduce biodiversity. Improvements to food safety, many argue, would be questionable.

“I think it’s good that they’re looking at the food-safety system -- it’s the first time they’ve done it since 1938,” Klein said. “But I think it’s important to get it right this time and make sure we’re not dealing with one problem and giving ourselves many other problems.”

Three thousand people die each year from food borne illnesses, she added, and every one of those lives is important. But more than 100,000 people die from preventable diet-related diseases that could be eased by better access to fruits and vegetables. From the perspective of public health, tradeoffs are essential.

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The FDA did not respond to requests for comments for this article, but the agency is likely to revise the first draft of the FSMA in response to public opinions, said Mark Rasmussen, director of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University in Ames. Rasmussen used to work for the FDA and said he was sympathetic to the herculean task of trying to write one set of all-encompassing rules that would make sense for all farmers and food processors.

Even when the rules are finalized, he added, our food supply will never be 100 percent safe.

“Food safety issues tend to catch us by surprise -- they come out of left field,” Rasmussen said. “I’m sure even with these rules in place, there will still be things that go wrong. We can’t always know what microbes are doing out there at every moment in time. Safe is a relative term.”