Bill Sparks Controversy for Small Farms
Local farms are up in arms over proposed federal legislation, claiming it would impose strict food safety regulations that could further strain their ability to make ends meet.
Known as the Food Safety Modernization Act (S. 510), the bill has passed in the House and is currently being considered by the Senate. It seeks to increase the administrative power of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in order to ensure safer food production.
Some local farming operations are concerned that S. 510 would bring about extra paperwork, increased costs and less-than-manageable regulations.
“It’s going to be extremely difficult for small-scale famers,” said Jamie Ronzello, specialty organic grower for Kumu Farms. “The cost of bringing in new equipment to meet [federal] standards, and the amount of record keeping – it’s going to be tough.”
Introduced in March 2009 by U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, the lengthy bill looks to monitor and prevent food-borne disease outbreaks through inspections and standards. The legislation would expand the power of the Secretary of Health and Human Services to inspect food records and even suspend operations if found incompliant.
“It’s a double-edged sword,” said Glenn Teves, a county extension agent for the Molokai Community Farm. “We need to make sure the food is clean and safe, but how much government intervention should be allowed?”
Teves said he feels the food grown on mom-and-pop farms, such as the ones on Molokai, are safe, and it’s the larger producers that face greater risk of contamination.
“Outbreaks of diseases mostly come from foreign countries or [operations] that produce mass amounts,” he added. “Molokai as a whole does a good job [with safety]. Small farmers take pride in their produce.”
Ronzello said while some of the standards are good practices that should be implemented, others, such as installing a stainless steel food surface, could be financially detrimental to a small operation.
“Not many small farms can afford state-of-the-art equipment like that,” she added. “They’re turning farms into hospitals. We’re not opening wounds; we’re not doing surgery.”
Kumu Farms, located in Ho`olehua, has just began the process of becoming federally food safety certified, and owner Grant Schule said it’s nothing short of a “complicated” process that could take another six months.
Schule said one government sanction that must be met to pass food safety is the use of potable water.
“Over time we’ll be able to afford a filtration system,” he said. “But there are not many options for farms in rural locations where there is no potable water. These geographical situations make it impossible to meet regulations.”
On the upside, S. 510, unlike the House companion bill, proposes to exempt some farms engaged in low or no-risk processing from new regulations, and give grants for food safety training for small-scale farmers.
Still, private farmers such as Joe Kennedy don’t want their farms used as stomping grounds for bureaucratic inspection.
“I want safe food,” said Kennedy, who owns a 25-acre farm in Ho`olehua. “But on the other hand, I heard so many dark stories about government control… that’s getting into everybody’s backyard and compromising people’s rights to privacy.”
Some Molokai farmers say that all though the proposed act is unfavorable, they will still reluctantly comply with any new standards.
“A lot of it is common sense,” Ronzello added. “We’re producing a product people consume so we definitely follow a high standard, and I hope others do the same.”