Proposed food safety rules may stunt small valley growers
Palisade farmer Scott Washkowiak is a stickler about employees always washing their hands. He uses only organic manure and ensures that tables are bleached before freshly picked food is placed there for sorting.
Washkowiak runs Field to Fork, a community supported agriculture program that supplied food to 80 households this year, as well as provided food for seven local restaurants and offered produce at Palisade’s Farmers Market.
Because of its small size, Washkowiak’s business won’t be affected by the implementation of a spate of new proposed rules under the Food and Drug Administration’s Food Safety Modernization Act.
Yet proposed rules threaten to keep farmers like Washkowiak from expanding and ultimately getting more local produce to the public, he said.
“I want to become a food hub, selling to Whole Foods. I’m on complete hold, not even thinking about it,” he said Wednesday from farmland he leases and works in Palisade. “If that language gets scary, I won’t even do it.”
Plenty of farmers in the Grand Valley stand to be affected by the proposed rules, which would apply to growers with a three-year average of annual sales of at least $25,000 to $500,000. Dates when farmers would have to comply with the rules are staggered, depending on farm size and production. A comment period is open until Nov. 15 for growers to comment on the FDA’s proposed rules.
The regulations lump small and large farming operations together and could stymie the local food-growing movement by encouraging imported foods not subject to tight controls, said New Mexico farmer and produce safety expert, Steve Warshawer. Warshawer was the featured speaker Tuesday night at a meeting hosted by Western Colorado Congress and Grand Valley Peace & Justice.
About 10 farmers and other community members showed up for the meeting.
Issues most concerning in the roughly 1,000-page Food Safety Modernization Act surround proposed changes for manure, irrigation, increased regulation of food operations like roadside stands and food co-ops, food processing and the costs to implement new standards.
For example, a new proposed rule requires that farmers every week test irrigation water for contaminants, a test the FDA estimates will cost $83.
That rule shouldn’t apply to tree-fruit growers, because water is not applied to the fruit, Warshawer said. Also, testing a water supply for a whole region could be done at one location, instead of having each farmer replicate tests, he said.
“We’re trying to demonstrate that farming and food concerns are different from state to state,” he said.
Another proposed rule includes a waiting period of nine months between applying manure and harvesting produce, a timeline that would make it essentially impossible to grow food in one season and might require farmers to use chemical fertilizers.
Current organic practices agree that food is safe to harvest 120 days after manure is applied.
“We can’t afford as a civilization or a community not to recycle manure,” Warshawer said.
Warshawer said that he understands that food safety is on consumers’ minds. He gave the example of a small U-pick strawberry farm on the Oregon coast that was linked to an E. coli outbreak a few years ago that killed one person and sickened a handful of others. FDA officials contended the farmers did everything correctly, but the outbreak was linked to deer that had gotten into the field, Warshawer said.
Still, Colorado residents won’t soon forget the 2011 listeria outbreak at a state cantaloupe farm that killed 33 people and hospitalized 147 people, the deadliest foodborne illness outbreak in a generation.
Eric Jensen, 37, and Ryan Jensen, 33, of the former Jensen Farms, each pleaded guilty to six misdemeanor counts in the case, but also sued their food auditing company that said their food was safe for distribution. The Jensens had purchased a new cleaning system for their melons that was intended to clean potatoes, but a chlorine spray that was supposed to be used to clean the melons was not used.
Warshawer said he wants the FDA to get involved “where there are legitimate health concerns.”
However, the broad brush of the proposed rules is a one-size-fits-all attempt to lump all farms together, Warshawer said.
“There is a very serious lack of clarity because farms are becoming more diverse,” he said. “From a public standpoint if the rules cause farmers not to open up and cooperate, that will affect all of us. I, as a consumer, don’t want that to happen.”
To comment on the proposed food safety rules in the Food Safety Modernization Act, visit fda.gov/FMSA. Tabs on the right side of the page include the proposed rules and offer guides for farmers and consumers.
For information, visit the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition at sustainableagriculture.net.