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.