HUSTONTOWN, Pa. — Jim Crawford was rushing to load crates of freshly picked organic tomatoes onto trucks heading for an urban farmers market when he noticed the federal agent.
A tense conversation followed as the visitor to his farm — an inspector from the Food and Drug Administration — warned him that some organic-growing techniques he had honed over four decades could soon be outlawed.
“This is my badge. These are the fines. This is what is hanging over your head, and we want you to know that,” Crawford says the official told him.
Crawford’s popular farm may seem a curious place for the FDA to move ahead with a long-planned federal assault on deadly food poisoning. To Crawford’s knowledge, none of the kohlrabi, fennel, sugar snap peas or other crops from his New Morning Farm have ever sickened anyone. But he is not the only organic grower to suddenly discover federal inspectors on his land.
In 2010, after a years-long campaign, food-safety activists persuaded Congress to give the FDA authority to regulate farm practices. The next year, an outbreak of food poisoning that killed 33 people who ate tainted cantaloupes put pressure on the FDA to be aggressive.
Now, farmers are discovering that the FDA’s proposed rules would curtail many techniques that are common among organic growers, including spreading house-made fertilizers, tilling cropland with grazing animals, and irrigating from open creeks.
Suddenly, from small family operations nestled in the foothills of Appalachia to the sophisticated organic-grower networks that serve Los Angeles and San Francisco, the farms that celebrity chefs and food-conscious consumers jostle to buy from are facing an unexpected adversary.
They’re fighting back. Even though full enforcement of the rules is still years away, they are warning customers that some farms would have to close.
“They are going to drive farms out of business,” said Dave Runsten, policy director for Community Alliance with Family Farmers in Davis, Calif.
“The consumer groups behind this don’t understand farming,” Runsten says. “They talk out of both sides of their mouth. They demand these one-size-fits-all regulations, then say, ‘I don’t want to hurt those cute little farmers at the farmers market. I shop at the farmers market.’ It is frustrating.”
Many farmers who take part in the locally grown food movement argue that contamination is a problem of industrial-sized farms and that some of the practices the FDA might ban actually make consumers safer.
Food safety advocates have urged regulators to hang tough. “We don’t believe large facilities are the only place where outbreaks are happening,” said Caroline Smith DeWaal, food safety director at the Center for Science in the Public Interest in Washington. Farm-to-fork growers, she said, need to accept that emerging strains of E. coli and other bacteria can just as easily seep into the produce sold at a farmers market as into the batches of salad bagged at giant processing plants, and they need to tweak their methods to protect against it.
“At the end of the day, consumers will be paying a little bit more for this. But a few cents here may help avoid a severe illness,” Smith DeWaal says.
Congress passed the landmark Food Safety Modernization Act amid alarming reports from public health agencies about widespread food contamination. Tens of millions of consumers are sickened by tainted food each year, and some 3,000 die annually as a result, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Parents of children who died from drinking contaminated juice or eating unsafe spinach rallied lawmakers with horrifying stories. Concerns about bioterrorism also played a role. The new rules are meant, in part, to make the nation’s food supply less susceptible to tampering.
The century-old FDA has ample experience breaking up unsafe pharmaceutical factories and food processors but is still finding its way around family farms. At a recent congressional hearing, Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) seized on one draft set of rules in which the FDA declared kale is “never consumed raw.”
“I was going to offer to make a kale salad for you,” she said to Michael Taylor, a deputy commissioner. “It causes you to wonder if those who are writing these rules have ever set foot on a farm.”
Over the summer, the owner of the last working farm in Akron, Ohio, which had been supplying produce to locals for 117 years, said he was throwing in the towel and blamed the FDA’s new rules. Don Bessemer told the Akron Beacon Journal that he was up for fighting pests and even drought, but not bureaucrats. Thirty workers lost jobs.
Federal regulators have been scrambling to find the right balance ever since the draft rules set off controversy. The FDA has backed away from some of its positions, and Taylor points out that thousands of the smallest farms would be exempt from new inspections under an agreement negotiated in Congress.
“This is the first time that the FDA will have regulated produce safety on the farm,” he said in an interview.
“It is understandable people have concerns and questions,” he added. “We have learned a lot during this last year.”
Regulators have been poring over comments from some 20,000 groups and individuals. On listening tours at farms, they have gotten an earful from growers such as Judith Redmond, one of the owners of the 350-acre Full Belly Farm in the scenic Capay Valley northwest of Sacramento. Redmond says she is bewildered by proposed restrictions on compost that could make it impossible to use on some crops.
“We think they should be encouraging people to use compost,” she said. “To consider it dangerous or potentially harboring pathogens is the wrong message to be sending.”
While the FDA is striking a conciliatory tone, protest is sure to follow when revised rules emerge this summer. That much is clear just from listening to both sides on issues as esoteric as how long farmers should be required to leave manure in a compost pile.
Farmers say they simply don’t have the facilities to do what food-safety groups are demanding.
Crawford, for example, fertilizes his farm with manure made from the waste of his 300 chickens. Composting it for as long a period as the draft FDA rules require would be impossible, he says.
He worries, too, about rules requiring him to keep animals away from the crops.
The Center for Science in the Public Interest will be pushing the FDA not to yield.
“Necessity is the mother of invention,” Smith DeWaal said. “Why not create a cooperative whose sole job it is to truck this stuff to a composting facility and truck it back? It’s an expense, but way better than the unexpected expense of a major recall and implications to your farm if an outbreak is traced to your product. There are costs either way.”
That might make sense to Crawford, the farmer, if he saw convincing evidence the manure he is using is dangerous. But he hasn’t. What he sees is an added expense that will give another reason for farmers operating on the margins to call it quits.
“The public loves to love and idealize us little family farmers,” he said. “But the vast majority of us are hanging by a thread. Now, the government is saying, ‘We are going to put a lot more weight on that thread.’”