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Food Safety Modernization Act Controversy for Small Farms

By Jennifer Kongs 

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factory farm eggsWith a recent recall on eggs linked to a multi-state salmonella outbreak, the Senate hearings on the proposed Food Safety Modernization Act could not come at a timelier juncture. The bill’s main goal is to increase the regulatory power of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in order to ensure a safer food supply. Small farmers and several advocacy organizations, however, have taken up arms against the bill, claiming the proposed regulations threaten to further strain small farmers’ ability to make ends meet.    


Upton Sinclair first exposed the dangerous truths hidden within our nation’s food processing industry in his novel The Jungle. Since the 1906 publication of Sinclair’s exposé, regulations imposed upon the food industry have been implemented to protect us from foods containing toxic chemicals or colored with heavy metals, including lead and mercury — although a strong argument could be made that several candy and soda companies missed that memo.

Over the past century, the increased centralization of our food production — accompanied by a growth in foreign food imports — has once again left our nation’s health at the hands of mostly unregulated food processors. Currently, the FDA has surprisingly little control over food safety: Our food industry is self-regulated, which means the FDA is not only incapable of demanding a recall of contaminated food products, but they also lack the power to punish the companies that produce such products. As a result, more than 350,000 Americans are hospitalized due to food-related illnesses each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC)

The Food Safety Modernization Act 

In response to growing concerns over these issues, the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act (S. 510), introduced in March 2009 by Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL), is currently being considered by the Senate. The main goal of the bill — to enhance the power of the FDA to monitor and prevent foodborne illness outbreaks — will be met through four main points of the bill, according to

·         test for dangerous pathogens

·         trace outbreaks back to their sources

·         provide the FDA with mandatory food recall authority

·         subject foods from overseas to the same standards as those for foods produced in the US 

The bill addresses improving capacity to prevent food safety problems, chiefly by expanding the power of the Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) to inspect food-related records and require permits from all food manufacturers and processors (not including farms or restaurants). The HHS would also have the ability to suspend a food facility’s registration if found incompliant. In the case of a foodborne illness outbreak, the ability of the FDA to trace the problem back to its source — and hold the responsible party accountable — is also emphasized. Finally, the bill addresses improving the quality and safety standards imposed upon imported foods. 

No one can argue against improving the safety and quality of our food system — but why then are small farm owners, farmers market advocates and other organizations speaking out against this act, and its companion House measure? 

Controversy for Small Farms 

The vague language of the bill has caused many to object to S.510, fearing that increased power for the FDA and the HHS will also mean increased costs, paperwork and strict regulations that could bring down the axe on the already dwindling numbers of small farms. In a recent action alert, the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) summarizes, “The new regulations could erect new barriers to these important markets for small and mid-scale farmers unable to bear the expense of compliance.”  

Consumers Union points out that S.510 contains language that directs the FDA to ensure the regulations don’t conflict with organic requirements and to consider what impacts any new regulations will have on small and diversified farms. In addition, the language of the bill is not yet set in stone — the addition of protections and exemptions for small farms and direct-consumer transactions, including farmers markets, can still be included.  

To ease the concerns of small farmers and organizations such as the NSAC, a “manager’s amendment” set forth by the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee has been released and is supported by all four sponsors of the bill. The key differences between this amended bill and the companion House bill include exemptions of farms engaged in low or no-risk processing from new regulations, reduction of unnecessary paperwork  and grants for food safety training for small-scale farmers.  

The main concern with any such food safety legislation is whether or not it actually solves the real problems inherent within our food system. Will giving an already overloaded government agency the power to create and enforce new food regulations make our industrial, centralized food production system safer and healthier? 

What About You? 

Is this a step in the right direction or a waste of time? Make your opinion heard by posting a comment below and contacting your senator to tell him or her what you think about S.510 and the “manager’s amendment.” You can locate your senator using this directory — they’ll be back in office to vote in September after the August recess. 

Jennifer Kongs is the Managing Editor at MOTHER EARTH NEWS magazine. When she’s not working at the magazine, she’s likely working in her garden, on the local running trails or in her kitchen instead. You can find Jennifer on Twitter or .

Photo by iStockPhoto/Simon Podgorsek 

shaman phoenix
1/28/2011 8:36:25 AM

The government agencies are bought and paid for by big business. "THEY" aren't looking out for our best interests, "THEY" are looking to put small farms and local food systems out of business with over-burdening costs and regulations. Big business is running scared, as mentioned above, and theY are stamping out thier competition under the smoke and mirrors of consumer protection and safety...B.S! Don't let them fool you. "THEY ARE JUST LOOKING OUT FOR THIER POWER AND PROFITS...NOT YOU! We must create a community based local food system again and grow our our foods, together. Then we'll put "them" out of business and we'll thrive.

tom in pv
10/6/2010 8:39:12 AM

Look beneath the surface and it is almost certain the "The Food Safety & Modernization Act" was written by lobbyists for the major food producers, distributors and grocery chain. Their motive? Head off the Slow Food Movement while it is still in its infancy. Does this sound familiar? The so called Food Safety bill seems to a perfect example of Corporatism. "Corporatism is a system in which big business uses its political connections and ability to wring favors from politicians in order to cripple its smaller competitors and increase its profits. Business leaders who take advantage of the public in this way are usually careful to disguise their behavior. They do not announce that they are trying to win special benefits from government. They claim to be serving the public interest. Thus corporatism often takes the form of regulation, supposedly for the public good, that disproportionately harms smaller businesses that lack the political pull of larger firms. This is not just unconstitutional. It is immoral. And it will not cease until an enraged population decides enough is enough." Thomas Woods, NY Times Bestselling Author of Meltdown How did your Congressional representatives vote on this bill? If they voted for it, just who were they "representing"?

9/6/2010 5:20:47 AM

I think everyone knows what happens when governmental bureaucracy inserts itself into any situation. The unintented concequences reverberate for generations to come and hammers and toilet lids end up costing 5000% more than they used to. Hope your prepared for the inevitable sticker shock that will come with this bill, so, hows $275.00 for a dozen eggs sound to you?!!!
9/1/2010 8:33:38 PM

Less regulation!! Has no one noticed what happens when we turn control of industry over to government? DISASTER!!

john m_3
9/1/2010 6:09:23 PM

the corporate food supply is the problem. and has been the problem. this is all about profit and nothing else. i know, businees is there to make money, profit, but now it seems, corporate integrity and reputation for good products is not even a consideration. the corporate "person" has lawyers and insurance and money to do what is cost effective. sue me, i have more lawyers than you. michale is right. our fda cannot or is limited by corporate politics to do anything about it. our corporate foods producers who import stuff from mexico, china, and anywhere they can get the cheapest price, which is the whole world, the whole unregulated world, brings diseases and poisonous foods into this country. international food inspection is a joke. you could smuggle a neuclear device in the lettuce or grapes. we raise our chickens, grow our food as best we can and buy at farmers markets when we can, and preserve food. we have retired and the youthful fire that we thought would change the world is gone. so since we are, all of us, in thise together, our meditations are for the young, get fired up.

robert lacoe
9/1/2010 5:36:33 PM

If you would like to read articles by a true Conservative take a look at DO NOT leave off the"Z" or you might end up at a porno site. Read the policy this article is discussing, and see why it is so dangerous that love the land and use it.

jane hess
9/1/2010 3:55:53 PM

Mother was right. Cleanliness is next to Godliness. I saw photos on TV. These chicken houses were filthy. That is what's wrong. Any farmer will tell you chickens don't do well in dirty environments.

richard kuipers
9/1/2010 2:53:06 PM

we don't need any more intrusion and taxation by the government. This bill needs to be stopped NOW!!!!!!

robert lacoe
9/1/2010 1:59:56 PM

Just another part of the plan! He who controls the food controls the population. The idea is to outlaw ANY production of food not controlled by the government. Say bye bye to your 1 or 2 tomato plants, a few hens for eggs, and even your watch dog. We the people have to wake up or our descendants will be like Russians under Stalin.

jamie k._1
9/1/2010 11:09:19 AM

Driving small, local producers out of business is the point. Big industrial ag producers are running scared as more people turn to local products and farmers' marktets. The big profit "middle man" loses profit when people buy direct from a local producer or grow at home. People who buy local and direct aren't under the control of the central-distribution machine. The local movement is a huge threat to the industrial model. So the solution? Make more legislation and rules that sqeeze small farmers (and the home producer) and give loopholes to industrial big ag companies. This is exactly what NAIS (National Animal Identification System) was designed to do under the guise of food safety. It did nothing to address safety, let big ag producers register their animals in batches instead of individually like small producers would be required to do, and blatantly stated it was to "protect export marktets" which small and home producers do not do. NAIS is being revived again, even though 90% of public comments were against it.

bill wadford
9/1/2010 7:32:45 AM

The last thing we need is more centralized control of the food supply. This is a Bill that will have devastating consequences down the road as the FDA tries to justify more budget money year after year. Like all bureaucracies it will try to grow more powerful to garner more money. Reductions in the size of growth will be mislabled "cuts" and its' tentacles will slowly reach out to all levels of food production, including your home garden. Kill the Act and downsize the FDA!!

t brandt
8/22/2010 9:10:37 PM

The truth is that virtually all food borne illness is caused by improper handling of the product at its final destination by the end user. Further involvement by the govt will only add more cost without appreciabley affecting outcomes. - consider "E. coli poisoning" in the US: about 1 in 1 BILLION servings of beef results in infectious death. And proper cooking would prevent that one. How much better can we get with more regulation of the producers?

8/22/2010 8:32:30 AM

We need to get rid of the FDA, not give it more power. This is nuts.

8/22/2010 5:53:28 AM

This bill, like most other bills will have the "unintended" consequence of pushing up prices on local produce and putting people out of business. This is garbage, and the last thing we need.

8/21/2010 7:33:05 AM

The FDA regulates almost 80% of the food supply, so I'm not sure what is meant by "the FDA has surprisingly little control over food safety". Nor am I sure how more bureaucracy will make our food any safer when the top 10 foods causes for illness outbreaks are already regulated. The CDC reports around 5000 people die each year from food poisoning. This is about .016% of the population. This does not show up on anyone's list of concern on things killing Americans, except maybe politicians and factory farms. Statistically speaking you are more likely to die from an asteroid impact (look it up!). Compared to the report from the Office of the Surgeon General that over 300,000 people die from obesity related issues each year you can see how small this problem actually is. I believe we need less regulation, not more and especially for small farmers. Despite what this article "may" be implying about there being an exemption for farms in this bill, that exemption only applies to section 101. The other 36 sections do apply to farms. One last thing to consider, to determine if we should surrender more of our freedoms to the government. Here's how the CDC comes up with the number of deaths from food poisoning and I quote, "first calculating the number of deaths among reported cases, then doubling this figure to account for unreported deaths, and finally multiplying by the percentage of infections attributable to foodborne transmission.” The best I could do under 1500 characters.