ADDISON COUNTY — A bill passed late last month by the U.S. House of Representatives could take steps to improve the safety of American food. Local foods advocates say the goal is laudable, but if it makes it into law provisions of the bill would place unfair burdens on small farmers and food producers in Vermont.
The bill is the Food Safety Enhancement Act, which would allow the Food and Drug Administration for the first time to set standards for safe production of food on farms. The legislation also calls for more frequent FDA inspections for food production facilities, gives the FDA the power to mandate the recall of tainted foods, and levels the same safety standards on imported food as domestically produced foods.
The ultimate goal is to reduce the risk of food-borne illnesses, like the outbreak last year of salmonella at a Georgia peanut processing plant that sickened 20,000 people.
To pay for those increased regulations and inspectors, the bill would require all food processors, importers and other food handlers to register annually with the FDA and pay a yearly fee of $500 for each food facility.
That fee would be the same for small mom-and-pop facilities as it would for those of larger corporations.
That’s why Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., voted against the bill, which eventually passed 283 to 142.
“Suppose you’re a farmer who made jam out of his or her berries, and then sold that jam to supermarkets and retail outlets and places like that,” said Dave Rogers, a policy advisor with the Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont. NOFA-Vt. lobbied Welch to vote against the bill, which Rogers said could hurt small farmers.
If more than half of that jam was sold through retail outlets, Rogers explained, that farmer would be considered a processor, and be liable for the $500 annual fee.
“The same fee would apply to Proctor and Gamble,” said Rogers. “We just thought that was unfair. Our main concern about (the legislation) is that it would likely result in unfair burdens on small farmers and food processors.”
The problem, Rogers went on, is that profits are “practically nonexistent” for small processors, and he’s worried the fee — as well as other expensive requirements under the act, like traceability standards and electronic reporting — could act as a disincentive for some.
Plus, he said, it’s not the small-scale food processors who are at the root of high-risk food concerns in the United States.
“The problems with food safety in this country come from very large-scale processors who are producing food and marketing it not just nationally but globally,” Rogers said. “These are the ones that are causing the problem, these are the ones that really need to get their act together. … The way it’s interpreted by us, small-scale processors and farmers who are processing are going to have to whack up the money to pay for the large-scale problems. That doesn’t seem fair.”
On that front, local processors agree.
Carleton Yoder, owner of Champlain Valley Creamery in Vergennes, said that the problem stretches beyond this one fee.
“I just feel like the little guy sort of gets nickeled and dimed,” he said. He’s required to carry a bond to pick up milk from his farmers, though the Agri-Mark dairy cooperative is exempt from that rule. He also pays the same fee for a milk handler’s license as every other processor in the state — including much larger operations like Cabot Creamery Cooperative.
Champlain Valley Creamery is a small operation — the facility is just 650 square feet, the size of a small apartment, and makes cheese three to four times a week.
“I think there should be some exemptions for small processors,” Yoder said.
Charles Mraz, the third-generation owner of Champlain Valley Apiaries in Middlebury, agreed.
Though a $500 fee might not seem like a lot of money, Mraz said, those fees can be burdensome for businesses that aren’t clearing large profits.
“It just adds up,” Mraz said.
At Twig Farm, a cheese-making operation in Cornwall, cheese maker Michael Lee chimed in with concerns that a “scale-insensitive” fee isn’t very balanced.
Like Rogers, Yoder and Mraz agreed that most of the biggest food safety risks weren’t stemming from small, local processors.
The problems tend to crop up, Yoder said, when companies are processing huge amounts of food in central locations, and then distributing that over thousands of miles.
Meanwhile, the price of a health problem is just too high for small companies. That means there’s already incentive for running a sanitary operation regardless of the legislation, Yoder said.
“If we had a (food safety) problem, God forbid, it would probably put us out of business,” Yoder said.
The U.S. Senate will consider its own version of the food safety legislation after the August recess, and then the bills will head to committee.
Rogers said that food safety legislation is important, but the rules and regulations need to be enacted in a way that doesn’t hurt small processors.
“We all say, ‘Yeah, let’s fix this food system,’” said Rogers. “But let’s do it in a way that makes sense.”