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News State / Region Sen. Hagan working to ease restrictions on local farmers

With Western North Carolina suddenly feeling like the Arctic, sometimes it may be hard to remember that spring will be here in no time and once again it will be time for local farmers to plant their crops. United States Senator Kay Hagan (D-NC) recently made an attempt to make it easier for these smaller farms to make a living.

Back in November, Hagan, along with Montana Senator John Tester sent a letter to the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Commissioner Margaret Hamburg that detailed the amendment that she and Tester were able to include in the 2010 Food Safety Modernization Act.

According to Hagan, this amendment will help protect small farmers from excessive federal regulations.

The act was signed into law on January 4, 2011, by President Barack Obama with the aim of shifting the focus of federal regulators from responding to contamination of farm grown foods to preventing it. As a result, the FDA was given the ability to regulate the way foods are grown, harvested and processed, but this created a burden for small farmers.

The law came about as a result of the passage of United States Senate Bill 510 back in 2010. As word of the bill spread to Macon County, concerned residents approached the county commissioners to urge them to stand up to the Food Safety Modernization Act. In response, they penned a resolution that stated, “while perhaps appropriate for industrialized food production, will create possible 'barriers against entry' that will rapidly destroy such local and natural production.”

Sharing the sentiment of early opposition, Hagan and Tester proposed amendments that would leave small, local farmers to adhere to regulations stemming from state and local health and sanitation laws as they did before the enactment of the 2011 law.

In the letter that was sent to the FDA, Hagan and Tester wrote, “It is essential to create separate, modified requirements for small farms and larger farms and processors: one size does not fit all. We urge you to rectify the rules to ensure that small farms, farmers' markets, and local cooperatives are able to thrive while protecting food safety from the biggest threats.”

According to Hagan, agriculture is the largest industry in N.C., producing about $77 billion in “economic activity” while also providing employment for almost one-fifth of the state's workforce.

The letter set out to define terms of the law that had been left inadequately defined by the FDA and urged the agency to reconsider the following issues:

  • In calculating the gross dollar amount of food sold at a farm or facility, the rules should specifiy that only food subject to the new regulations ought to count towards the $25,000 de minimus exemption in the Produce Role and for the $500,000 annual gross sales limit for the modified requirements for a farm or facility in both rules. Without a revision clarifying this distinction, diversified farms that primarily raise livestock, dairy, grain, feed, or forage may be forced to follow regulations required of large produce operations for only a small amount of produce grown.
  • In defining a very small business in the Preventative Controls Rule, we encourage FDA to use at least the $1 million gross sales limit, since this definition would include all of the farm sales, not simply sales from crops subject to the rules.
  • The draft rules do not clarify the definition of a retail food establishment for purposes of direct sales, which was required by FSMA. Sales directly to consumers through community suppored agriculture shares, roadside stands, farmers markets, online grocery delivery and all other direct-to-consumer channels should be included in the direct sales threshold in the definition of retail food establishment in the final rule.
  • A definition or description of material conditions is not presented in the draft rules regarding the FDA's authority to withdraw the qualification for the exemption or alternative set of rules for small farms or facilities. Providing the clarity that FDA would need evidence before initiating withdrawal proceedings is important for guiding farmers in their decisions about how to run their busienss and transparency.
  • The definition of packing and holding in the draft Preventative Controls Rule does not take into account the role that community supported agriculture efforts, farmer cooperatives and other activities play in aggregating fruits or vegetables from a number of small farms for direct sales. This needs to be clarified so that such food hubs and other innovative ways to reach markets do not trigger the rules for large industrial operations.

The senators urged the FDA to remove key requirements for agricultural water testing, stating that “these requirements are unworkable and unaffordable for small farms.”

Debate on the Farm Bill was unfolding yesterday morning on C-SPAN while local farmer Butch Deal watched. Deal farms in Macon County and grows crops in a lot of different areas throughout the county. He makes it a habit of keeping an eye out for anything that may impact him and his family's way of life.

“We haven't been impacted positively or negatively by any recent legislation,” he said as he referred to the Food Safety Modernization Act. “We'll wait and see what happens. Once a bill is passed, the agency interprets the wording and develops the rules for it. It could be a while before we see any impact.”


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