Don't Punish Small Farms for the Crimes of Big Business

Don't Punish Small Farms for the Crimes of Big Business
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Next week, the Senate is set to vote on historic food safety legislation. The House has already passed a bill, so this Senate vote will mark one of the last steps before Obama signs food safety reform into law. As we've experienced food safety outbreaks from one food after another in recent years, from peanut butter to spinach to toothpaste to pet food and back to peanut butter again.
Update: When I wrote this, the bill was scheduled to go to the floor next week. A few hours ago it was been pushed back because they are taking up financial reform first. Still, the bill is coming up in the next few weeks.

However, unfortunately, small farmers are caught in the middle of the food safety fight. By and large, small farmers are not responsible for our food safety problems. It's not that they are immune from the microbes that infect food grown by larger companies; because they make up so little of our overall food supply, they wouldn't be capable of sickening very many people even if they wanted to. Also, operating a small farm allows for more direct oversight of all operations compared to owning or managing a large company like Kraft or Kellogg with thousands of suppliers and employees and many different manufacturing facilities.

In the case of last year's massive peanut recall, the problems came from leaky ceilings (dripping water from a roof covered in bird poop), dead mice, rats, and cockroaches, and rodent droppings. In fact, quite often food safety outbreaks occur because of contamination of food with poop. It's really a low bar to aim to keep poop out of food, one that most small farmers can manage easily.

The bill's a great bill with truly needed reforms. I would never advocate anything other than passing it. But let's make sure small farmers aren't punished for the crimes of big business. Sen. Tester of Montana (an organic farmer himself) has introduced two amendments that will do this. For example, it exempts farmers who sell directly to consumers, restaurants, hospitals, schools, etc from the traceability system mandated by the bill. If I buy asparagus from Farmer Phil, I know I bought asparagus from Phil. If the asparagus makes me sick, I can quickly tell Phil and he can quickly alert his other customers and then stop selling his asparagus. So why should Farmer Phil be subject to new record keeping and traceability requirements (which may require him to buy new electronic system along with requiring his time and labor to comply with the law) if traceability is already implicit in his direct sales to me?

That's the point of the Tester amendments. It's just a fine tweak to a mostly great bill, to make sure that we're doing no harm to our small farms while we're passing much needed reforms. If you'd like to fax your Senator to ask for his or her support for Sen. Tester's two amendments, click here.

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