By TEDDYE SNELL
Area residents have shown burgeoning enthusiasm for locally grown and farmed products, as the Tahlequah Farmers’ Market has gained popularity over the years.
But new rules affecting small farmers could mean higher prices for customers.
In November, the Daily Press reported rulemaking for the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) was nearing its end, and many small, local farmers were worried they’d be driven out of business due to costs associated with the law if certain portions of the rules were allowed to stand.
FSMA was enacted by Congress in 2010. According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the law “aims to ensure the U.S. food supply is safe by shifting the focus from responding to contamination to preventing it.” The proposed rules were designed to reduce the growing number of outbreaks of food-borne illnesses from fresh produce.
But the new FDA rules could have driven some farms out of business because those with less than $500,000 in sales, who sell mostly to commercial customers, would have to pay 4 to 6 percent of their gross revenue to comply with regulations.
The public had until Nov. 15 to submit comments, and it seems those who responded made a difference. In late December, the FDA announced plans to make “significant changes” to areas of FSMA most troubling to small farmers.
“Because of the input we received from farmers and the concerns they expressed about the impact of these rules on their lives and livelihood, we realized that significant changes must be made, while ensuring that the proposed rules remain consistent with our food safety goals,” wrote Michael Taylor, FDA spokesman, in a statement. “For that reason, we are planning to revise language in the proposed rules affecting farmers and plan to publish it in the Federal Register for public comment by early summer.”
Comments from local farmers made a difference
Coleen Thornton, co-owner of Heaven Sent Food and Fiber, a local small farming and growing operation, said the response by farmers to the new rules running up to the Nov. 15 deadline was amazing.
“Yes, they did hear us.” said Thornton. “There were about 20,000 comments from all sizes of farms, from big ag to small producers.”
Thornton said farmers have been backed by scientists, who indicated the health benefit to the public did not justify the expense to the farmer for alterations the new rules would require.
“The scientists came back and said there wasn’t a lot of evidence-based information in the proposed rules. They believe we’ll put in $1 billion for a 5 percent improvement in food safety,” said Thornton. “Obviously we don’t put a price on people, but if you’re not going to make a significant impact, it’s horrible to place $1 billion price tag on regulations that will no doubt be passed on to consumer.”
Thornton indicated the FDA intends to review the process, present rules for public comment by this summer, and have new rules in place by 2015. Among the requirements to be reviewed are water-quality testing for farms, manure and compost spreading procedures, rules for mixed-use facilities – those that both pack and process produce – and the withdrawal of qualified exemptions.
“My interpretation of the qualified exemption thing is that they’re going to look at the grievance process,” said Thornton. “The first time around, farmers would basically have no grievance process if an inspector decided to shut a farm down.”
Thornton believes it’s important for people to understand there are no federal appropriations set aside to fund the new FDA mandate once it’s in place.
“It appears the states will be taking on yet another unfunded federal mandate,” said Thornton. “It will be important for local consumers to talk to their state legislators, as this will become a state issue. This is going to cost the state a lot of money, and the more resolutions passed at the state level, the better. We need to let the FDA that one size does not fit all, that we need to be able to manage this on a state level.”
Thornton commended area legislators, including Sen. Wayne Shaw, R-Grove; Sen. Earl Garrison, D-Muskogee; and Sen. Kim David, R-Wagoner.
“All the state legislators in our area have not only been willing to listen, they’ve returned calls, answered questions and offered legislation to help,” said Thornton.
According to Care2.com, over the past two decades, the number of farmers’ markets in America has quadrupled to 8,144, and supermarkets, restaurants, schools, hospitals and other wholesale buyers are increasingly using food they procure from local farmers.
To learn more about the Food Safety Modernization Act and its potential effect on small farmers, visit sustainableagriculture.net. Local farmer Coleen Thornton welcomes questions and comments.
To learn more about the vendors who participate in the Tahlequah Farmers’ Market, go to tahlequah TDP.com