The livelihood’s of some Maine small farms could be threatened by new FDA rules

By Morgan Rogers - September 10th, 2013 · 

Congresswoman Chellie Pingree, Maine farmers and food producers voiced their concerns over proposed food safety rules to federal officials from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) at a public hearing held at the Augusta Armory on September 2nd.

The Deputy Commissioner for Food Safety at the FDA, Michael Taylor, agreed to come to Maine when Pingree invited him to discuss the new food safety rules the FDA will be enforcing as part of the revised food safety act, signed into law by President Barack Obama in January 2011.

Taylor made his announcement about the regulations and respectfully listened to participants at the forum. Some of the FDA regulations may hurt Maine small farmers. At the meeting it became clear that small farms were unfortunately overlooked when the FDA rules became law. The regulations were designed to limit salmonella and other contaminants that have harmed larger farms crops.

“One-size-fits-all regulations will put New England farmers out of business. The size of regulation must match the amount of risk, and the loss of hundreds of farms cannot be an unintended consequence of the food safety rules,” said Pingree.

Compliance costs for a medium-sized farm with annual gross sales of $250,000 to $500,000 would be $13,000 and farms earning over $500,000 would need to spend over $30,000, according to FDA estimates.

Only farm operations that gross less than $500,000 in annual sales are exempt if half of their sales are direct-to-consumer. Farms with sales less than $25,000 annually are exempted completely.

“These are not factory farms, or single commodity operations, they are family run, diversified farms. They are diversified because that has traditionally been the most successful way to yield even a modest profit – that is what enables them to stay on the land for another generation,” said Pingree.

There are two proposed rules, one is for fruit and vegetable farmers and the other is for food processing facilities. The regulations were passed into law to reduce foodborne illness before they happen, instead of trying to contain and treat outbreaks of foodborne illnesses.

According to the FDA director of produce safety, Dr. Samir Assar 1.75 million acute illnesses would be prevented every year and $1 billion in associated costs for containing foodborne illnesses would be saved per a year due to these proposed rules.

“Our supply chain for many direct market farms is a short enough period of time that it does not necessarily support the growth of pathogens, and that the food is often consumed within a short enough period of time that the regulations aren’t necessary,” said Dave Colson, the agricultural services director for the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association.

Pingree pointed out that some farmers could fall under both sets of regulations by the FDA’s definitions.

“Unfortunately, the FDA’s definitions of ‘farm’ and ‘facility’ are confusing and do not provide clarity to farmers for determining whether they are subject to one or both rules. Congress did not intend for a single operation to be subject to both regulations, yet this is what FDA appears to codify with the term ‘farm mixed-type facility,’” said Pingree.

Further public hearings regarding the new food safety rules, will be held by the FDA in New Hampshire and Vermont this week. Farmers are being asked to submit their comments on the rules at fda.gov/fsma.