Every summer thousands Montanans look forward to the fresh fruits and vegetables, meat and dairy products available at local farmers markets. Meanwhile, 12 months a year, local farmers and ranchers are supplying a growing number of restaurants, schools, hospitals, and company cafeterias with good food grown by and for Montanans.
Now, U.S. Senate Bill 510, the Federal Food Safety Modernization Act, threatens these same small-scale farms and businesses that are providing fresh and healthy local foods in Montana's communities.
The bill was crafted in response to shocking pathogen outbreaks originating in a long, industrial food chain. These resulted in illness and deaths in multiple states. A broad bipartisan coalition in Congress knows this system needs reforms to enhance traceability and establish risk prevention measures to save lives. After all, when an individual food product includes dozens of sources from across the country and around the world, each should be labeled and tracked in order to identify the cause of an outbreak.
Yet food from local markets is different. Purchasing directly from a producer allows a consumer to know exactly where and how the food was grown or prepared. Food safety risks from these direct-market transactions are minimal, and if a problem arises local authorities can immediately identify its origin.
Food-borne pathogens present a risk to all people, and our industrial food system needs to be changed to ensure each citizen can eat without the fear of becoming ill. Unfortunately, the proposed bill is flawed by a one-size-fits-all approach that risks driving our family-scale farms and food processors out of business. The original bill, as proposed, would interject the Food and Drug Administration into the smallest of transactions, such as farmers selling in farmers' markets and farm stands, by imposing onerous federal rules and paperwork.
We already learned a hard lesson from imposing standards like these in the 1990s, when the U.S. Department of Agriculture adopted new risk prevention rules governing meat processing. The number of small local and regional meat processing plants plummeted - not because their products were not safe, but because the paperwork and administrative overhead in maintaining the new system destroyed what small margin of profitability they needed to stay in business. Massive multinational producers caused the problems in the meat industry. Small packers paid the price.
Fortunately, U.S. Sen. Jon Tester understands the detrimental impact S. 510 will have on Montana's small farms and food processors if the bill is kept in its original form. Tester will introduce two crucial amendments to ensure Montana's small-scale producers are not subject to the same federal regulations as large agribusinesses like Dole or ConAgra. One amendment removes farms selling directly to consumers from new FDA jurisdiction. The second exempts small food processors from the most costly record-keeping sections of the bill. Both amendments keep the primary responsibility for food safety in the capable hands of local and state authorities. For decades, any restaurant, school food service, hotel or institution in Montana that has wanted to source locally-grown and processed food must comply with food safety protocols set forth by local public health officials.
Food safety must be a priority for everyone. However, without Tester's amendments, S. 510 risks the viability of Montana's many small-scale farmers and processors, none of whom caused the original pathogen outbreaks. Fixing the food system where it does need repair shouldn't occur at the expense of the emerging local alternative that offers healthy food and creates jobs for Montana's citizens.
As members of organizations working to create new economic opportunities for Montana producers and reconnect eaters with the source of their food, we are proud to have a senator that still has his roots in the ground.
Blakely Brown is a professor of nutrition at the University of Montana and serves on the board of directors of the Community Food and Agriculture Coalition of Missoula County. Kevin Moore is the coordinator of the statewide food policy coalition Grow Montana.