Food-safety bill worries some small farms

Pauline Lord, co-owner of White Gate Farm in East Lyme, harvests cilantro in the winter greenhouse on Monday. Lord is concerned about the impact a federal food-safety bill might have on her small farm.
Pauline Lord, co-owner of White Gate Farm in East Lyme, harvests cilantro in the winter greenhouse on Monday. Lord is concerned about the impact a federal food-safety bill might have on her small farm.

All 65 of the free-range turkeys raised at White Gate Farm this year had their destinies decided weeks ago by the local families who reserved them for their main course this Thanksgiving.

But as feast day approaches, other customers will still be making their way by White Gate's gently sloping fields and pastures to its wooden farm stand for sweet potatoes, Brussels sprouts, winter squash and Cornish hens raised organically on 100 acres off Upper Pattagansett Road in East Lyme.

"It's pretty busy," Pauline Lord, who runs the farm with her husband, David Harlow, said last week after leading a visitor through the greenhouses where spinach, carrots and an assortment of Asian greens are grown and harvested after the weather turns too cold for the outdoor plots.

Despite the demands of running White Gate and supplying her customers, which include local restaurants and farmers markets as well as those who come directly to the farm stand, Lord has found time this fall for some political action.

Through e-mails to customers, friends, other farmers and calls to the offices of the state's two senators, Lord has been urging that any attempts by Congress to sharpen safety controls on the nation's food supply not hurt small farms like hers in the process. Groups including the Connecticut chapter of the Northeast Organic Farmers Association, with 800 members, share that concern.

"It would be a terrible thing if this ended up making the food supply less safe, and that's a real possibility," said Lord.

It would be less safe, she believes, if the regulatory burden ends up causing some farms to curtail or even quit production of local food, undermining the local food movement that's been attracting growing numbers of devotees in recent years.

The Senate, which reconvened Monday for a short lame-duck session, is expected to take up the Food Safety Modernization Act on Wednesday. Although it has broad support from groups representing consumers, food processors, produce marketers and others, the measure has caused discomfort among some small farms, along with advocacy groups for sustainable agriculture and small-scale farming. They see the new layer of regulations it would impose on them as overly burdensome and even a potential threat to their survival, taking away time that small, limited staff operations could better spend growing healthy food without filling out paperwork.

Rob Schacht, who runs Hunts Brook Farm in Waterford with his wife, Teresa, said operations like his already have a strong built-in motivation for making sure their water supply, manure, compost and fertilizer handling and other practices are such that potential contaminants are kept at bay: themselves and their families.

"Most small farmers are eating what they grow," Schacht said.

Some small farmers also resent the notion that the law could treat them the same as the large industrial farms where the sickening of hundreds in recent major food-safety scares with salmonella in eggs, tainted peanut butter and tomatoes, E. coli in spinach and mad cow disease in beef originated.

"These (outbreaks) are all things that are products of the big anonymous growers," said Lord, who started White Gate Farm with her husband in 1999. "If anybody got sick from my eggs, they'd know exactly where they came from, but in 11 years no one's ever gotten sick."

Currently, she added, an FDA inspector visits her farm once a year to certify that it meets federal standards required for her to call her farm organic.

Supporters of the measure believe the large producer-small producer distinction is meaningless when it comes to food safety and say that while big agriculture's failures may be better publicized, food that comes from small farms can also cause sickness if the producer is careless.

Additionally, they say the bill's potential for harming small farms has been exaggerated and that amendments proposed to allow some exemptions and alternative means of compliance should ease critics' worries.

"We want food to be safe whether it comes from a large farm or a small farm," said Sandra Eskin, director of the Food Safety Campaign of the Pew Charitable Trust, part of a coalition of groups supporting the bill. An unusual cross-section of consumer and industry groups is backing the bill, she said, because of the toll the food-borne illness outbreaks have taken on consumer confidence and profits lost due to recalls.

David Plunkett, senior staff attorney with the food safety division of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, said the bill is needed not only for the health and safety of U.S. consumers, but that it's also important for the sake of trade partners who want the assurance of better U.S. food standards on products it allows to be imported. It would also set safety standards on foods imported to this country, requiring importers to verify that products grown and processed overseas meets safety standards, he said.

"This concern about the burden of the regulations is overblown," he said. "We want these people (small farmers) to prosper and for people to have confidence that these products are safe. Right now, we have a very poor surveillance system. Consumers shouldn't be paying for food that's going to make them sick."

Both he and Eskin believe the regulations would basically codify what good small farms are probably doing already, such as having their water tested for safety, not applying raw manure to produce fields, assessing the safety risks of various crops and developing a systematic plan to minimize them.

"It's all common sense," Eskin said.

If the Senate passes the bill, which has Connecticut Sen. Chris Dodd among its 20 co-sponsors, it will go to the House, where a similar measure has already passed. Supporters are hoping the House will then pass the Senate version and send it to President Obama for his signature before the close of the session in early December.

Dodd, for his part, is maintaining his support for the bill's passage, saying in a statement that he was "proud to be an original sponsor of bipartisan food-safety legislation" and that "Americans deserve to know that the food they bring home to their families is safe to eat."

Connecticut's other senator was more qualified in his support: "Sen. [Joe] Lieberman will take a close look at the concerns local farmers have with the Food Safety Modernization Act, and he will consider amendments accordingly," a statement from his office read. "He believes the bill's overall purpose-increasing food safety and reducing food-borne illness-is an important one, especially in the wake of the tainted egg epidemic that our country experienced this year."

j.benson@theday.com

AT A GLANCE

Some of the major provisions of the Food Safety Modernization Act:

• It would expand the authority of the Food and Drug Administration with registration, inspection, recordkeeping and reporting requirements for all food processors, packers, warehousers, importers and exporters.

• Farms and processors would be required to have food safety plans and document efforts to prevent contamination; amendments could exempt farms will annual sales of less than $500,000 and sales within a 400-mile range.

• Minimum federal standards for the safe production and harvesting of fresh produce would be established, with produce deemed at greater risk of contamination expected to meet stricter standards.

• FDA inspections of farms and processors would be more frequent, and based on the "risk profile" of the products produced at the facility.

• Tracking of fruits and vegetables would be improved with enhanced record keeping, so that foodborne illness outbreaks could be more easily traced to the source.

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