This is not good news.
Jim Crawford started New Morning Farm in Maryland many decades ago. He was young and idealistic. He had little or no money and had to start small. He believed in sustainable agriculture and wanted to produce fresh and healthy produce to sell in farmers’ markets to the urban public. He succeeded and became increasingly well known both for his ideals and his produce.
This may be why the FDA picked him out for a site visit. An inspector appeared without warning and told him that his operation would have to change, according to the Los Angeles Times: “This is my badge. These are the fines. This is what is hanging over your head, and we want you to know that.” It didn’t matter that no health problem had ever been associated with Crawford’s impeccably run operation.
The Food Safety Modernization Act for the first time gave the FDA direct authority over our farms. We thought this was a very bad idea. We weren’t able to stop it, although we were able to eliminate crippling fees for small farms that were in the original bill and also to exempt some of the smallest farmers. Unfortunately this didn’t help Jim Crawford since he is no longer operating on a tiny scale as he was when he started.
It should have been obvious to everyone that putting the FDA in direct charge of farms was a terrible idea.
Much of the FDA’s budget is paid for by Big Pharma instead of the taxpayers, which creates a serious conflict of interest. Despite this funding from industry, the FDA publicly stated that it lacked both the funds and the expertise to do its job, even before farming was piled on. It continues to state that because of lack of funds it cannot do what it is required by statute to do—therefore it is operating lawlessly.
Most importantly, the FDA knows little or nothing about farming. This is already painfully obvious in some of the voluminous and detailed farm regulations it is writing.
The agency also has a well-established track record of issuing regulations that favor big business over small producers, regulations that overwhelm small producers with compliance costs and can put them out of business.
The FDA itself estimates that new produce regulations will cost $4,700 for very small farms, $13,000 for small farms, and $30,500 for large farms. If accurate, these estimates would drive many growers out of business and prevent new ones from starting up. But they are not likely to be accurate.
It appears that, among many other requirements, repeated outside audits will be required, and each one will cost $5,000. Bessemer Farms, located in Ohio, which is closing its produce production and switching to soybeans, estimates that complying with the new rules would cost $130,000, including the required outside inspections.
Produce operations selling less than $25,000 a year will be exempt, as will farms that sell directly to the public via a roadside stand or the like. This exemption will discourage small produce operations from growing bigger, and will thus make the US even more reliant not only on giant farms, but also on imported foreign produce whose safety is even more uncertain.
This pattern of driving smaller operations out of business or keeping them small isn’t unique to the FDA. The US Department of Agriculture (USDA), which has previously been on the farm but not quite in charge of it, does the same. Why is it necessary for many farmers to drive four or more hours to find a plant where they can process their livestock? Because the USDA has forced many small plants out of business with all their requirements, which include having a government inspector present.
In this case, the interests of big business and big government coincide. The big businesses get a government enforced monopoly for their area. The big government bureaucracies get a more manageable regulatory situation. It is hard enough for them to supervise the big businesses. They feel it’s too hard to regulate thousands of small businesses. And when they leave the government, they expect their next employer will be one of the big businesses.
Unfortunately, the result is that it is harder and harder for small, artisanal, and organic food producers to survive. We get more and more industrial agriculture, and as an unintended but direct consequence, less and less food safety. After all, the record could not be more clear: it is not the small food producers who are causing the contaminated food problem. It is the large, industrial farms that are doing so.
We don’t know yet how the new FDA regulations on produce and on farms in general will end up. There are plenty of worries, but the process will take years.
With your help, we will monitor and try to make the new regulations more reasonable, but with FDA inspectors already sending an intimidating inspector out to New Morning Farm, despite repeated pleas that they lack the staff and funding to do their real work, at the moment it doesn’t look good.
This is not good news.