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Food "Safety" Reform and the Covert Continuation of the Enclosure Movement

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The number of farmers in this country has steadily, and at times dramatically, declined due to policies developed by the Committee for Economic Development. The group of business and financial leaders' plans were most clearly articulated in CED's 1962 report called "An Adaptive Program for Agriculture," which spelled out how to reduce by millions the number of farmers engaged in agriculture so that agriculture could be put in the service of big business.[6] But, for the first time in a over a century, we're seeing an increase in the number of farmers. Tozzi notes that "Between 2002 and 2007, the number of American farms increased by 76,000, according to the latest data from the US Agriculture Department's Census of Agriculture, compared to a decline of 87,000 in the five years before that."[7]

Harvesting Social Justice

These new farmers display a new sensibility: farming with a mission. Tozzi explains that "Local food ventures often have goals that are not strictly financial. Most of the companies examined in the report factored in some nonfinancial business decisions, such as their impact on the environment, workers, and communities. They're also not interested in growth at all costs."[8] On the contrary, the new breed of farmer is looking to create scale-appropriate stability within a thriving community, the opposite of policies advocated by industrial agriculture.

As discussed in a report produced by the Illinois Local and Organic Food and Farm Task Force for the Illinois General Assembly, "The business of creating and maintaining all the links in the local supply chain aggregating, processing, packaging, storing and transporting products translates into jobs that cannot be outsourced. Right now, such a system doesn't exist. There is not enough local food to meet the demand, nor enough farmers growing local food, nor companies in the business of processing local food. But there are too many food marketers disappointing their customers. This void is what's called opportunity."[9]

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The local food movement is cultivating a system in which money circulates within a community, benefiting hundreds of people rather than allowing profits to be extracted by a few in the middle who have captured control of the inputs, outputs, distribution and sales of the global food system. The Illinois Task Force report states that "Studies show that money spent at local businesses creates a multiplier effect, internally circulating the same dollars up to eight times within the local economy. Using the conservative economic multiplier of two to three cycles, a 20 percent increase in local production, processing, and purchasing will generate $20 to $30 billion of new economic activity annually within the state's boarders. Thousands of new jobs will be created for farmers and farm-related businesses."[10]

The Illinois Task Force report notes how important is has become for people to know where their food comes from and how it's grown: "Most Illinois citizens are only a few generations removed from the farm. During that time a global food system emerged, and people stopped asking where food comes from. But it is precisely this question that has spurred nutrition-minded moms, public health professionals, rural advocates, educators, restaurant chefs, and many others to jumpstart the local food movement. Nevertheless, transforming this movement into a sustainable economy will require significantly greater scale than can be provided by a relative handful of farmers showing up at the outdoor market with pickup trucks." [11]

Consequences of Pending Legislation to Local Healthy Food

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The Carolina Farm Stewardship Association recently issued a report entitled "Hurting NC's Local Food Harvest: The Unintended Consequences of Federal Food Safety Legislation on North Carolina's Small Agricultural Enterprises" that lays out what North Carolinians have to lose if this legislation passes. The report's author, Roland McReynolds, analyzed the effects of S 510, concluding that "Costs to comply for North Carolina small businesses could exceed 100 hours in labor and $9,500 in consulting and testing expenses per year. These and other costs for complying with one-size-fits-all food safety rules could force many small farms and food business to abandon value-added markets. The significant likelihood of unintended consequences from this FDA regulation means that many jobs and farms stand to be lost." [12]

McReynolds points out that "The existing law defines food manufacturing broadly, and captures the activities of tens of thousands of farms and small businesses. Although under certain circumstances food processing on a farm is exempt from the current law, those existing FDA regulations are arbitrary and make it very difficult for a farm to expand its markets or respond to changing economic conditions." [13]

The Carolina Farm Stewardship Association has been lobbying for "common sense" amendments to the bill, because the legislation "takes the unprecedented step of authorizing FDA to enforce rules on how to grow fruits and vegetables at every farm in the nation, no matter how small. Regulators and lobbyists in Washington, DC assert that it is vital for pubic safety that FDA have this control, but the vast majority of produce-related illness outbreaks are traced to processing facilities, not farms." [14]

McReynolds position that the primary source of pathogen contamination is large-scale processing and distribution and not farms is confirmed by a January 2010 report commissioned by the Alliance for Food and Farming called "Analysis of Produce Related Foodborne Illness Outbreak." The report found that only "21.9 percent of all foodborne illnesses were associated with produce. Of that 15.8 percent were a result of improper handling after leaving the farm and 6.1% of illnesses were associated with the growing, packing or shipping of produce. Food items other than produce caused 87.7% of the outbreaks or 78.1% of the foodborne illnesses from 1990 to 2007."[15] These findings strongly suggest that legislating costly and business-busting requirements on farm operations is misplaced and unwarranted, especially in light of its negative impact on farmers' livelihoods.

The very last thing this job-creating movement needs is to have policies legislated on behalf of vested interested in control of the global food system create unnecessary regulatory obstacles that make entering or staying in business financially ruinous. McReynolds says that "Not only will FDA rules impact how these farmers grow produce, but it will impact their ability to maintain diversified farm income, and impact their ability to manage input costs." [16]

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"Unintended" Consequences and Other Fairy Tales

While McReynolds politely characterizes the legislation's consequences as unintended, recent history and a review of the economic literature suggests that it is well understood by those pushing the legislation that it will shut down small- and medium-sized businesses. In fact, an argument can be made that the consequences are acceptable collateral damage and even a desirable outcome from the viewpoint of vested interests.

Key provisions in the legislation require farmers who sell more than 50% of their crops to the wholesale market to register as "facilities" and create safety plans Hazard Analysis and Risk-Based Preventive Controls (HARPC) -- for each crop they grow. HARPC is a variation of HACCP (Hazard Analysis Critical Control Points), an approach to food safety originally developed for industrially processed foods by microbiologists at Pillsbury.[17] HACCP greatly assisted the manufacturers of processed foods by assuring the safety of their products without any need to engage in costly, wasteful and ultimately ineffective product testing. It could achieve this success with HACCP because processed foods undergo a "kill step," such as cooking, drying, refining or acidification that eliminates any pathogens that may be present.

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Nicole Johnson is a researcher and activist living in Ventura county, California. Her kids wish she would go back to painting and stop worrying so much about the world.

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