Monday, February 22, 2010

The Tension Between Strengthened Food Regulation and the Interests of Small Farmers

As congress and state legislatures consider legislation to strengthen the food safety system in this country, an interesting tension has sprung up between two groups that would on first glance seem more likely to be allies than opponents. Food safety advocates have increasingly found themselves in disagreement over important questions with small farmers and proponents of the local food movement. Basically, the problem is that small-food types are worried that broadly increased regulation of food producers will disproportionately affect small producers, who operate on narrow margins and lack the legal teams and the resources to conform to complex regulatory requirements. Two good recent examples of this:

The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC), which promotes local, sustainable farming, last week came out with a detailed proposal of changes it would like to see in S. 510, the food safety bill currently pending in the senate. A good review of the NSAC concerns can be found here, courtesy of Food Safety News.

Marion Nestle, who is a major proponent of an improved food safety regime, is also ordinarily an advocate for local and sustainable food movements. But her response to a bill pending in the Wyoming legislature reveals how these two allegiances don't always go hand in hand. The bill seeks to encourage and assist small, local food producers, but one way it does so is by exempting small producers from certain licensing requirements. Nestle isn't comfortable with this arrangement, which she believes would compromise food safety.

These aren't easy questions to answer. Advocates of good food, including Dr. Nestle, are certainly aware that we need to find some kind of reasonable compromise, and I think everyone is in the process of feeling out what that might be. Keep your eyes out, as S. 510 moves forward and (hopefully) goes into the reconciliation process with the house bill, for how all this plays out.

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