The Food Safety Modernization Act becomes law

On Tuesday, January 4th, President Obama signed the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), ending a long and contentious debate about the government’s role in the food system. In general, the FSMA is designed to limit the spread of foodborne illness through increased regulation. Among other things, the bill allows the Secretary of Health & Human Services and the Food & Drug Administration to more frequently inspect food processing facilities, recall tainted food, and impose stricter regulations on imported food. While most applauded the move as much-needed consumer protection, many were concerned that new regulations could put family farms and other small producers at a great disadvantage.

Thanks to the efforts of many grassroots political action groups, the FSMA we have today is far more sensitive to the needs of small- and mid-scale farms and food producers. Instead of imposing one-size-fits-all regulations, paperwork, and costs, the Tester-Hagan and other amendments ensure that our local food producers receive fair and evenhanded treatment. The result is an FSMA that most sustainable agriculture organizations are hailing as a “victory” for the local food movement and consumers in general.

According to the National Sustainable Agriculture coalition, six amendments in particular sponsored by NSAC and remain intact in the final version of the FSMA were critical in making the FSMA a better, more effective Act for small farmers:

  • An amendment, sponsored by Senator Sanders (I-VT), giving FDA the authority to either exempt farms engaged in low or no risk processing or co-mingling activities from new regulatory requirements or to modify particular regulatory requirements for such farming operations.
  • An amendment, sponsored by Senator Bennet (D-CO), to reduce unnecessary paperwork and excess regulation required under the preventative control plan and the produce standards sections of the bill, including instructions to FDA to minimize the number of different standards that apply to separate foods, to make requirements scale appropriate, and to prohibit FDA from requiring farms and other food facilities to hire outside consultants to write food safety plans.
  • An amendment, sponsored by Senator Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), to provide for a USDA-administered competitive grants program for food safety training for farmers, small processors and wholesalers, with a priority on small and mid-scale farms.
  • An amendment,  sponsored by Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA), to strip the bill of wildlife-threatening enforcement against “animal encroachment” of farms and require FDA to apply sound science to any requirements that might impact wildlife and wildlife habitat.
  • An amendment, sponsored by Senator Sherrod Brown (D-OH), to exempt farmers from extensive and expensive traceability and recordkeeping requirements if they sell food directly to consumers or to grocery stores, to allow labeling that preserves the identity of the farm through to the consumer to satisfy traceability requirements, and to in most cases limit farm recordkeeping to the first point of sale when the product leaves the farm.
  • An amendment, sponsored by Senators Jon Tester (D-MT) and Kay Hagan (D-NC),to provide a size appropriate and less costly alternative to preventative control plans and produce standards for farmers who:
    • Direct market more than 50% of their products directly to consumers, stores or restaurants,
    • Have gross sales (direct and non-direct combined) of less than $500,000,
    • Sell to consumers, stores, or restaurants that are in-state or within 275 miles, and
    • Provide their customers with their name, address and contact information.

As the most far-reaching overhaul of the food system since the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act of 1938, the law represents a sea change in the American food system. If implemented correctly, it may go a long way to reducing the number (currently estimated by the CDC as 48 million) Americans who are sickened annually by a foodborne illness.