Scale matters and a one-size-fits-all solution is a function of a state that exceeds a proper scale (and ignores a common sense approach to problems). According to one article:

The Food Safety Modernization Act represents the first major overhaul of U.S. food-handling practices in more than 70 years. Passed by Congress and signed into law by President Barack Obama in 2011, the legislation was created, some say hastily, after a spate of food-borne illness cases, which have been increasing in number and severity since the mid-1990s.

That the centralization of agriculture and the use of monocultures has been increasing during the same time doesn’t seem to raise any eyebrows.

Tim Stark, a tomato farmer in Rockland Township, Berks County, would be subject to those protocols. Stark, who employs 16 at the height of the season and brings to market more than a ton of tomatoes and other produce on a good day, said it’s unfair to hold him to the same standards as California’s Grimmway Farms, said to be the world’s largest producer of carrots.

Under the law, Stark, who sells directly to his customers, would have to follow the same sterilization and other precautionary protocols as the largest produce growers in the country. These protocols include discouraging wildlife from coming onto his farm.”To expect me to spend the same kind of money as the Grimm brothers’ farms in California sanitizing my packaging facility would be kind of outrageous,” he said.

He also finds “ridiculous” a provision that would prohibit a farmer from harvesting a field if an animal had walked through it.

“Personally, I think it’s crazy to expect small farms to jump through the same hoops as the bigger farms,” Stark said.

So if a deer or a raccoon wanders through a farmer’s field, the crop is tainted? Nature is no longer the benign context within which we live but the foreign and dangerous place where we are, at least for now, required to grow our food. If only the natural world wasn’t so dirty!
Question: from whom would you rather purchase a tomato or a steak or a gallon of milk: a farm carefully monitored by a federal or state agent committed to enforcing regulations suited to large-scale mono-culture farming? Or the small farmer down the road who takes care to produce healthy food because he’s selling it to his neighbors? As regular news stories about tainted food and national recalls remind us, the first option is far from fool-proof. The second option is surely at least as safe. But if so, why are the regulations geared to favor a system that is not clearly superior? Who benefits? Hmm.

 

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Mark T. Mitchell
Mark T. Mitchell teaches political theory at Patrick Henry College in Purcellville, VA. He is the author Michael Polanyi: The Art of Knowing and The Politics of Gratitude: Scale, Place, and Community in a Global Age (Potomac Books, 2012). He is co-editor of another book titled, The Humane Vision of Wendell Berry. Currently he is writing a book on private property. In 2008-9, while on sabbatical at Princeton University, he and Jeremy Beer hatched a plan to start a website dedicated to political decentralism, economic localism, and cultural regionalism. A group of like-minded people quickly formed around these ideas, and in March 2009, FPR was launched. Although he was raised in Montana and still occasionally longs for the west, he lives in Virginia with his wife, three sons and one daughter where they are in the process of turning a few acres into a small farm. See books written by Mark Mitchell.

6 COMMENTS

  1. These are not stupid laws. They are intelligently crafted to support big money and eliminate small holdings. They are bad laws in that they are explicitly morally evil.

    t

  2. Mark, thanks for posting this. The FSMA as passed contained an exemption for “small” producers, which sustainable agriculture groups fought hard for in 2011, and which FDA has since worked hard to gut. The expense and/or impossibility of complying with the proposed rules would run thousands of farmers straight out of business.

    The Carolina Farm Stewardship Association has posted some examples of specific, practical problems the implementation will cause for sustainable agriculture: http://www.carolinafarmstewards.org/fsma-issues/

    The FDA is accepting comments on the proposed rules through November 15, so I would urge anyone frustrated by them to tell the bureaucrats who wrote them, and who may yet change them. (Assuming the website is running.)

  3. First, I once read the reminiscences of an Austrian woman about her experiences around the time of the “Anschluss” (the takeover of Austria by Nazi Germany shortly before WWII).
    Before the arrival of the Nazis there were many small coffee shops with only a few tables in a few hundred square foot space. Each shop supported the owner and their family (in a very marginal manner, I am sure).
    The Nazis, in the interest of public health (of course) required each eating establishment to have a bathroom. This is not an unreasonable requirement and is a universal requirement, for sit-down restaurants in the US, as far as I know. However, the effect (purpose) of the regulation, was that overnight, all the small, independent, locally owned coffee shops were replaced with a single, large coffee shop owned by a German corporation (that certainly contributed money to the Nazi Party as did all good corporate socialists).
    More hygienic perhaps, but also, effectively putting the small shop owner (who could not possibly contribute enough money to the Party to be noticed and also could not afford to comply with the regulations) out of business. A bug, or a feature?
    Second, don’t birds fly over all fields and poop? Does bird poop not contain bacteria? How is this public health catastrophe addressed? Additionally, how do these regulations address the filthiest creature on the planet (exaggeration, perhaps), the common house fly. If a house fly is found in a field must all the produce be destroyed?
    Thirdly (hold the sighs of relief, please), are not the effects on small farms in this case similar to the effects of granting of exemptions from the requirements of the “Affordable Care Act” to certain large companies (McDonalds, as an hypothetical) in regards to their smaller competitors (say, Martins, for your Atlanta readers) that are big enough to be required to shoulder the costs of employee health care but not big enough to “lobby for” (i.e. purchase) an exemption from the ACA from our Dear Leaders. In an industry with such small margins as fast food, might not increasing the labor costs of the small companies even slightly push them out of business and benefit their bigger competitors with better “connections.”
    Corporate Fascism marches on. It is much more efficient to squeeze a million dollars from one large company than $100 from 10,000 small companies (and we all know efficiency is the hallmark of government).
    Just my $0.02 worth (all I can spare at the present time).

  4. I very much appreciate your consistent reference to human scale in your various articles because not only is lack of human scale often an aspect of the problems we face, but likewise an aspect that is often never mentioned or even apparently considered.

  5. Scale is very much the point. The longer the supply chain, the more opportunity there is for cutting corners, for even relatively innocent contamination, and the less the consumer knows about what they are really getting. After the scandal of lead-painted toys being imported from China, it turned out the new consumer protection law also imposed huge lab testing and certification costs on a road side stand in Vermont where a single wood-carver made little painted birds for sale to tourists. Three things happened:

    1) The big corporate boys seized on this as a poster-child for their desire to gut any and all regulation.

    2) Legitimate concerns were raised that the law should be amended or applied with discretion so as not to burden small crafts people who were obviously not the intended targets.

    3) Well intended consumer protection organizations, exhausted from the effort to pass a reasonably needed law to control what corporate purveyors were foisting on American shoppers, reacted with knee-jerk fury to the notion of re-opening anything. While this was foolish, and lost them some vital support, it must be admitted that re-opening such a law WOULD allow lobbyists for corporate interests to try again to gut the whole thing.

    I’m surprised that even large corporate farms would be regulated based on whether animals might run across their fields. Where health hazards generally arise is in the scale of industrial harvesting, storage, processing, and shipping. Piles of dead meat in a basement warehouse are going to attract rats, for example. Odwalla’s e.coli scandal of about fifteen years ago had two factors: expanding from a kitchen sink in Santa Cruz, CA, to regional distribution across half the country requires a whole new type of infrastructure, and at first, they didn’t have it. Also, as a local apple grower and juicer in New Jersey told me, if people are demanding organic, that means using manure for fertilizer, and that will put the fruit within easier reach of e.coli. (Again, the larger the scale, the more likely that a little contamination will creep in, and spread to a large portion of the product).

    I am also reminded of the woman selling home-made strawberry ice cream, made with fresh strawberries, at a farmer’s market in Chicago. She was told by health authorities that fresh fruit had much too high a bacterial count to meet appropriate standards, so she should use processed syrup instead. It is true that a local kitchen can be quite unsanitary, and there should be significant civil liability for food-borne illnesses from such local sources. But they are not so difficult to identify. What the federal government needs to protect us from is the possibility that carrots from California pick up e.coli on a box car crossing the Rockies, or some rat-borne pathogen in a warehouse in Chicago, which is invisibly present when the carrots are put on display in a supermarket in Dayton, Indianapolis, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, or Detroit.

  6. P.S. David Walbert, thanks for the link. I found the site and left an extensive comment, expanding on the template provided. Its Comment Tracking Number: 1jx-889y-ouxx, if it is of any interest to see what is being submitted.

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