Donohue to Karst: Small farmers not inherently safer - The Packer

Donohue to Karst: Small farmers not inherently safer

01/04/2011 04:46:00 PM
Tom Karst

I wanted to publish a thoughtful commentary submitted by Denise Donohue, executive director of the Michigan Apple Committee. Denise sent this to me in the week before Christmas when I was out and I didn't see it. The letter is in response to my column about food safety legislation.

From Denise:

I need to pause in my holiday merriment and respond to your November 29th editorial on the exemption for small farms in Senate Bill 510, now working through congressional technicalities on its way to becoming the law of the land.

“What’s it to You?” the headline asks the larger commercial grower. I’d like to lay out a few areas where equal regulation of “small” farms is critically important to the larger-scale produce industry.

Equal Scare Opportunity. There’s no question that a food safety scare caused by a small grower has a chilling effect on all producers of that commodity.

Consumers have demonstrated they cannot – or are unwilling to – differentiate between US vs. Mexican tomatoes, or between Roma and beefsteak tomatoes. Instead, they stopped buying all tomatoes for weeks on end in 2008. These consumers are certainly not going to buy large growers’ produce if a small grower causes a food safety incident. Everyone suffers.

Having started down the road of on-farm GAP, and GHP/third-party audits for packers and shippers – which makes an incredibly strong food safety statement to the public – US food safety policy should not excuse thousands of growers from meeting this standard. It’s a big step in the wrong direction.

This is also where Karst’s last-minute-worker-same-wages biblical parable falls apart: In the parable it was a simple inequity of wages that inspired jealousy. In real life, exempting smaller growers from GAPs and more goes beyond petty jealousies and could actually be a life or death issue.

False Impression. By excusing small farmers from meeting GAP and other food safety requirements, our government sends the inaccurate message that small growers are somehow inherently safer. In fact, small farms or small packing houses often lack sufficient staff and capital to keep abreast of the latest food safety regulations, procedures and equipment. (Of course, most small farms and packing houses do a stellar job – and wouldn’t mind meeting federal standards.)

Let’s address the point of “small farms,” which runs scarily close to the environmentalists’ “factory farm” language. Using the Michigan apple industry as an example, we have 900 growers and an annual “farmgate value” (the amount growers are paid for their apples) of about $130 million.

That means the average orchard has farmgate revenues of $144,000 annually. Multiply that times three years and the average Michigan apple farm has revenues of $433,333 in the law’s specified three-year period – a comfortable 13 percent below the legislative threshold.

Of course, all farms aren’t average in size but do we really want to exclude the average Michigan orchard from meeting new food safety regulations? The Michigan Apple Committee – which includes two farm marketers – unanimously supports keeping food safety regulations the same for all orchards.

Michigan’s Senator Debbie Stabenow, about to assume the helm of the Senate Agriculture Committee, had a much better proposal than Tester: Keep food safety standards the same for all farms, but provide training funds to give a leg-up to small growers who wish to break into direct sales. Don’t lower the bar for all.

Lesser Standard for Vulnerable Population? Direct-to-school sales are another area that gives me pause. From the start, small growers and locavores have put local schools at the top of their sales lists. Currently in Michigan, there are no food safety produce regulations for school procurement staffs.

However, food service companies that provide most produce to these same schools require shippers to meet strict USDA GAP and GHP standard sbefore they can bid on federal school food service contracts. The shipper is typically supplied by several small and a few larger growers. Why are the “direct-sell” small growers any better than the small growers who coalesced around a GHP-certified shipper? In other words, why should the go-it-alone grower be able to sidestep GAP and GHP? Is he/she more somehow more worthy of the lower overhead?

Do we really to expose our most vulnerable citizens – children – to fresh produce that has been excused from meeting federal food safety guidelines? Food safety measures shouldn’t be a marketing chip used by large-scale agriculture, but the very foundation of a healthy fresh produce business.

Even the Playing Field. Lastly, it isn’t government’s job to tip the playing field so that small or new growers can get more sales. Michigan apple growers selling through normal commercial channels (rather than direct to consumer) have invested thousands and tens of thousands of dollars to meet or exceed government and industry regulations that have been racheted up since the peanut and tomato debacles.

These hard-earned dollars came out of growers’ pockets because they wanted to meet government expectations, and because it was the right thing to do. And now the government has decided it wasn’t really serious about shoring up food safety by all participants? But that some should get a free pass financially and procedurally, with the full blessing of the feds?

How is this fair for those growers and shippers who have played by the rules; cooperated, collaborated and even consolidated with their fellow growers in order to meet government regulations to win Department of Defense bids to sell to public schools and other accounts.

Incorporating parts of the Tester amendment created a last-minute patchwork of loopholes during a holiday week – and arguing that industry must support it because lame-duck is almost over – does US food safety regulation a major disservice.

Had this bill not passed Congress and the Senate, there’s no question the issue would have been right back on the table – food safety is too important to do it incorrectly.



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