When President Obama signed into law an overhaul of the nation’s food safety regime in early 2011, it was clear that the system needed a kick in the pants. Recent salmonella outbreaks involving a dizzying array of peanut products and a half billion eggs had revealed a dysfunctional, porous regulatory environment for the nation’s increasingly concentrated food system.
The law, known the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), was a pretty modest piece of work when it came to reining in massive operations that can sicken thousands nationwide with a single day’s output. No surprise, since Big Food’s main lobbying group, the Grocery Manufacturers Association, notes on its web site that “GMA worked closely with legislators to craft the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act and will work closely with the FDA to develop rules and guidance to implement the provisions of this new law.” (Food and Water Watch summarizes FSMA here; Elanor Starmer lists some of its limitations here.)
Even for many supporters of food safety reform, one persistent question has long been whether the new rules would steamroll small and midsize farms. Obviously, what would be a light burden for a multinational giant like, say, Kraft Foods, could be a crushing one for a farm that sells its produce at a farmers market. To allay fears of one-size-fits-all regulations-which swirled in sometimes-wildly paranoid forms during the FSMA debate-Congress exempted most operations with sales of less than $500,000 from most of its requirements. But the proof of is in the rule-making-the process by which federal agencies, in this case the Food and Drug Administration, translate Congressional legislation into enforceable law. Congress intended its exemption to save small farms from overly burdensome regulation, but the question remained: How would the FDA put it into action?
Finally, more than two years after Obama signed FSMA, the FDA’s rule-making process appears to be nearing an end. And I’m disappointed to report that, according to decidedly nonparanoid, noncrazy observers, the proposed rules as currently written represent a significant and possibly devastating burden to small and midsize players.