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A 'Food Safety Modernization' bill was recently introduced to the House of Representatives—and as it stands, a new government organization could fine food vendors, manufacturers, distributors, and farmers up to $1 million dollars for violating "food safety law." Per violation. It's created a minor uproar in the small and organic farm community, as some worry that the massive fee could hit our friendly neighborhood farmers' market vendors and local farmers. So if the bill passes, will your favorite produce seller be hit with a $1,000,000 fine? Technically, he could. But he most certainly won't. Yet conspiracy theory websites are already heralding the end of farmers' markets, and bloggers are melodramatically bidding farewell to CSAs and roadside stands. This is what you'd call an overreaction.
What the Bill Actually Does
The bill's intention is not to heap millions in dollars of fines on small farms and food vendors. In fact, it's instead a much needed, long overdue piece of legislation that will streamline the government's food safety and inspection system. As I've noted before, the current food regulation system is a big fat mess—the USDA and FDA (and dozens of agencies within both) each inspect different kind of foods and have little inter-organization communication. And we end up with peanut butter poisoned with salmonella.
Hence, the creation of a Food Safety Administration: a single, streamlined department charged with regulating food that would cut out the bureaucratic tangle that allows for miscommunication and sloppy inspecting.
The Law Will Not Fine Small Farm Owners $1 Million
Thus, the bill now targets all food manufacturers and distributors, and yes, under the current wording, that includes small farmers. But it also includes Wal-Mart. Which do you think would be the recipient of a million dollar fine for selling unsafe foodstuffs? The massive fine is an attempt to discourage companies for engaging in unsafe food production—how much attention do you think big corporations would pay if the fine were $250? Granted, some distinction should be made in the legislation's wording—but the bill has only been introduced. It's still has to pass through the House and the Senate, where such technicalities could be hammered out.
Other things that bother the small farm community about the bill include a proposed registration process that would force anyone who produces food for retail to sign up with the government and agree to allow inspectors on their grounds. Again, these are blanket rules—the bill's drafters attempted to include all food retailers, from CSA farmers to McDonald's beef distribution centers, under the same umbrella. While this is certainly an overreaching way to go about food regulation, it's still a step in the right direction.
The Real Effect on Small Farms
I can't imagine this resulting in anything more than a little paperwork and a brief headache for small farmers—they have no reason to worry about a seven figure fine. That amount is intended to account for corporate ne'er food-do-wells, and is therefore a pretty damn good incentive to keep factories and meat packing plants clean. So, especially if that blanket, one-rule-fits-all wording gets clarified, this is one bill very much worth supporting.
Read the Food Safety Modernization Act for yourself, and see if you think it'll kill the farmers' market as we know it.