December 9, 2010

New federal legislation could burden local farmers

by Nate Rafn | Salem Weekly

Critics of Senate Bill 510 (S.510), the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act, believe new regulations will put small farms out of business.

S.510 was introduced in March, 2009, by Senator Richard Durbin (D-IL). Since then, twenty-one Senators have signed-on as co-sponsors.

After a series committee hearings, motions, and proposed amendments, the U.S. Senate passed the bill on November 30th, 2010, with a Yea-Nay vote of 73-25. Oregon's Democratic Senators, Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley, each voted in favor.

The bill now moves to the House of Representatives. If it passes, and is signed into law by President Obama, the federal government would gain tighter control over the American food supply. The new law would allow the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and other agencies to regulate the production, harvest, distribution, and/or storage of any food in the United States.

The prospect of additional government oversight doesn't sit well is many small-scale Oregon farmers.

"I expect that in any form it will, if not immediately, then eventually, severely restrict our ability to provide the community with healthy food choices," says Jo Dhooghe, co-owner of Bridgeport Farms & Gardens, an 87-acre farm near Dallas, Oregon.

"I expect it will at some point force us out of business one way or another."

Dhooghe's concerns are not without warrant.

According the Congressional Research Service, S.510 requires "each owner, operator, or agent in charge of a food facility to: (1) evaluate the hazards that could affect food; (2) identify and implement preventive controls; (3) monitor the performance of those controls; and (4) maintain records of such monitoring."

Requiring the evaluation of hazards and risks could put a heavy burden on small farms and businesses that have implemented their own common-sense safety standards.

In addition, S.510 proposes rule making with respect to "growing , harvesting, sorting, packing, and storage operations..."

Some critics believe such broad language could be applied to various types of operations, including farmers' markets and community gardens. Furthermore, many farmers are worried that the new standards will require expensive harvesting equipment and storage facilities. Still, the specific requirements remain unknown.

"What exactly we will need to do will depend on how the House of Representatives reconciles the new law, and on how the EPA and FDA interpret and implement the new law," says Tom Denison, owner of a 20-acre, organic farm near Corvallis.

"As I understand the new law, only farms with gross sales less than $500,000 will be exempt from additional Federal regulations. We gross too much to be exempted, so we expect to have significantly more paperwork required of us in order to comply with the new law."

Denison is referring to an amendment added to S.510 by Senators Jon Tester (D-MT) and Kay Hagan (D-NC) that exempts small-scale direct-market farms. While $500,000 in gross sales sounds like a lot, most farms aren't left with much at the end of the year, according to Denison. Expenses are simply too high.

"Typically a farmer's net income runs 10-15% of their gross sales."

While the exemption doesn't apply to his farm, Denison appears somewhat optimistic about the bill as a whole.

"I'm happy the bill passed the Senate with the Tester amendment included," says Denison.

With the Tester-Hagan amendment in place, Susan Boyd, who manages several parcels of family farmland in Union and Baker Counties, sees the bill in a positive light.

"I enthusiastically support federal food safety legislation. Our food system includes huge interstate components which are not adequately monitored," says Boyd.

Regardless of any amendments, exemptions, and compromises, Jo Dhooghe views the new legislation as a superficial fix for a much more complex problem.

"In my opinion, this bill is completely unnecessary because it addresses the wrong issue," says Dhooghe.

"The issue is not food safety per se, it's diet and health in general. This bill obsesses over how to make things that pass for food "safe", which by their very nature aren't fit for human consumption in the first place. How safe is bread with rubber in it? How safe is molecularly unstable genetic material? How safe could neurotoxins and chemicals that interfere with brain function really be? The epidemic of obesity and degenerative disease in this country is in large part the result of consumption of foods and food additives approved by the FDA. This bill addresses none of that"

The House of Representatives will confront this issue in the coming months.

Pumpkin patch at Bridgeport Farms & Gardens.
Speak Up

Visit to contact your elected officials. Tell them how you feel about this important legislation.

Nate Rafn is the executive producer of Living Culture, a television program about food and farming in the Willamette Valley. Visit


According to The Alliance For Natuarl Health USA, S.510 was deemed unconstitutional because of a tax-raising provision in Section 107. Article I, Section 7, of the Constitution states: “All bills for raising Revenue shall originate in the House of Representatives."

Congress will likely forge a new food-safety bill next year.


  1. Recently Michael Pollan and Eric Schlosser said in the New York Times that this was "the best opportunity in a generation to improve the safety of the American food supply."

    Of the worries about small farms they say "Those legitimate concerns have been addressed in an amendment, added by Senator Jon Tester of Montana, that recently was endorsed by a coalition of sustainable agriculture and consumer groups. But now that common sense has prevailed, the bill is under fierce attack from critics — egged on by Glenn Beck and various Tea Partyers, including some in the local food movement — who are playing fast and loose with the facts."

    Is Pollan really this far off base?

  2. Great question! I also read the article with Michael Pollen, and believe he is on the wrong side of the fence.

    The authors of S.510 are suggesting that our current industrialized food system is acceptable, as long as we add a few more rules and regulations. What really makes our food unsafe is the industrialized system itself, and the government's role in supporting perpetuating it.

    As for the Hagan-Tester amendments, I find these exemptions a little silly. First, there are many small and medium-sized farms that gross more than $500,000. Subjecting these businesses to more paperwork and oversight is unnecessary, especially if the farm in question has a perfect track record. Income has nothing to do with food safety.

    What we really need is for government to provide incentives for young people to get into farming. We need public investment in small organic farms and local food systems. Real food safety comes from gardens, diversity, and getting to know your local farmers!


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