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Maine Farmers Worried About Costs of New Food Safety Rules
08/19/2013   Reported By: A.J. Higgins

Representatives of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration got more than an earful from Maine farmers today during a scheduled listening session in Augusta that focused on proposed rules for implementing the federal Food Safety Modernization Act. The act was passed by Congress two years ago, after a multi-state foodborne illness outbreak killed 30 people who had consumed tainted cantaloupes. Maine farmers say they support food safety rules, but object to some proposed policies they claim are unnecessary and potentially devastating to small growers. A.J. Higgins has more.

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Congress added the Tester Amendment to the federal Food Safety Modernization Act in an effort to address the concerns of small farmers, who feared that compliance with new food safety requirements would being added costs. But many of the more than 100 Maine farmers who gathered in Augusta were hardly reassured by the presentation from Michael Taylor, the Deputy Commissioner for Food Safety at the Food and Drug Administration.

"This so-called Tester Amendment exempts from the produce safety standards growers who have less than $500,000 a year in annual sales, at least half of which is direct-to-consumer or retail," Taylor said.

The FDA official's listening sessions are among the required public events that accompany a court-ordered Nov. 30 deadline for publishing all the proposed rules mandated by the Food Safety Modernization Act - sometimes referred to as FSMA. Congress ordered the new standards as part of a massive overhaul of the country's food safety laws, an attempt to prevent future cases of food contamination.

Proponents of the act say nearly 48 million people are sickened with food poisoning every year, resulting in a national cost of about $78 billion in lost wages, productivity and medical expenses. But the act's critics - and there are many - claim that the regulations are grinding small farmers beneath the heel of policy changes crafted mostly in the interests of large agri-business.

Dave Colson, the agricultural services director for the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, says he's worried about the implications for Maine farmers who will have to bear out-of-pocket costs to comply with the rules, which he says just aren't needed.

"Our supply chain for many direct market farms is a short enough period of time that it does not necessarily support the growth of pathogens, and that the food is often consumed within a short enough period of time that the regulations aren't necessary," Colson said.

Colson says the act creates uncertainty for small Maine farmers who are unsure about the record-keeping required to qualify for an exemption under the policy. Furthermore he says, the definitions of scale are confusing.

Maine 1st District U.S. Congresswoman Chellie Pingree, who was also present for listening sessions, points to FDA estimates that even a medium-sized farm with annual gross sales of $250,000 to $500,000 would have to spend $13,000 a year in compliance costs. And farms with sales over $500,000 could see increases of more than $30,000 a year.

"One-size-fits-all rules will put New England farmers out of business," Pingree said. "The size of regulation must match the amount of risk, and the loss of hundreds of farms cannot be an unintended consequence of the food safety rules."

State Rep. Brian Jones, of Freedom, agreed with Pingree, and told Taylor and other FDA representatives that Maine should be guided by policies that reflect the realities of the local market.

"I challenge you to point out one case of locally-produced, locally-marketed and locally-consumed product that has led to a fatality in the state of Maine," Jones said. "My guess is that you're more likely to be struck by lightning than die from locally-produced produce in the state of Maine."

But Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Commissioner Walter Whitcomb, a former legislator himself, says Maine is still part of a nation-wide system that cannot be segregated from regulation.


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