The International Association for Food Protection (IAFP) held its 2019 annual meeting July 21-24 in Louisville at the Kentucky International Convention Center. Each year, almost four thousand international food safety professionals from industry, federal and state regulatory agencies and academia (students and faculty) attend the meeting.1
One of the meeting sessions was titled, “Why are we still having food safety failures if we all have food safety systems?”2 The fact is that in spite of the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) and various food safety measures undertaken by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), foodborne illness outbreaks in the U.S. have not declined much, if at all. Driven by globalization and the deterioration of quality in the industrial food system, the food safety industry continues to be a growth industry.
The IAFP meeting is a huge networking event with a friendly and collegial atmosphere for attendees. Food safety troubles represent a substantial business opportunity and enable IAFP to serve as an incubator for the development of food legislation, like FSMA, which advances the financial position of each of the groups attending IAFP. The way this works is as follows. The industrial food companies cause the food safety problems. Congress then increases the budget of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and USDA to deal with these problems. Part of that budget increase goes to academia in the form of grants to come up with solutions for the problems, and additional grants pay state agencies to do the federal government’s bidding—such as conducting state inspections to enforce new federal laws. The industrial food companies get one-size-fits-all food safety regulations that increase their market share when their smaller competitors cannot afford the cost of compliance, and the newly legislated requirements generate more revenues for labs and other firms involved in food safety.
One sector that is not a part of the food safety revenue trail is the local food system. Regulators, industry and academia have never acknowledged how a stronger local food system can improve overall food safety. (Instead, USDA recently issued a proposed rule to allow the import of poultry slaughtered in China!)
So, the question is: if the small farmers and artisans making up local food systems do not have a place at the table, are they on the “menu” for the players in the food safety industry? For now, it looks like local producers still have ways of staying off the “menu,” but the food safety industry is monitoring them—and possibly considering ways to get them more under the industrial food regulatory umbrella. For example, during a roundtable session titled “Cottage foods: harmonizing food safety practices for a growing entrepreneurial industry,”3 regulators on the panel expressed frustration at the lack of uniform regulation for cottage foods in the U.S. However, none indicated that legislation to make state cottage food laws the same would gain any traction.
There was also a panel on the topic, “Has the time come for the complete adoption of the Food Code?”4 The Food Code is a set of onerous model regulations that FDA develops to govern retail sales of food to consumers. All states have adopted at least some portion of the Food Code, but full adoption would mean the repeal of laws in states such as Wyoming, Maine, Utah and North Dakota that currently allow unregulated sales—from producers direct to consumers—of foods needing time and temperature control (e.g., dairy and foods with dairy as an ingredient). Again, no one on the panel for this presentation stated that there was a legitimate chance that this kind of legislation would pass.
The most alarming news at the conference was the disclosure by an FDA official regarding the agency’s inspections of food facilities for compliance with current Good Manufacturing Practices (GMPs)—one-size-fits-all regulations governing plant construction and design, sanitation, warehousing and distribution. The typical FDA inspection for GMP compliance can last two and a half to three days. Producers with less than one million dollars in sales per year come under the FSMA’s Tester-Hagen qualified exemption5 and are to be exempt from FSMA requirements for a food safety plan and, arguably, from the GMPs. Nonetheless, assumed as part of its FSMA duties, FDA has been conducting GMP inspections of exempt facilities anyway. A reading of the relevant FSMA statute indicates that FDA doesn’t have the authority to require compliance with GMPs by firms exempt under Tester-Hagen. (My article, “Is FDA exceeding FSMA inspection authority?” provides details.6]
FSMA provides an absolute exemption from the food safety plan requirement for producers who derive over half of their sales revenues from direct-to-consumer transactions. Most small farmers and local artisans fit this description, but expanding sales to restaurants and retail stores is a step many of them need to take to increase business. The unauthorized FDA inspections for GMPs make that a more difficult road to travel if their direct-to-consumer sales fall below half of their total revenue.
A growing local food system can make the food safety regulators’ jobs easier. At the IAFP meeting, a high-ranking FDA official acknowledged that the “Achilles heel” of the food safety system is industrial food’s lack of traceability, an admission that isn’t surprising given the international food trade and the long, complex supply chains that result. Nothing is more traceable than locally produced and consumed food. Deregulating local producers and increasing their numbers is the path to fewer foodborne illness outbreaks and safer, more nutritious food.
Rather than spending a few days on the premises of small producers, FDA inspectors and state regulators could invest their time more productively by inspecting imports. One speaker at the meeting displayed a graph showing that from 2009-2016, the greatest number of foodborne illness outbreaks were caused by seafood (25 percent) followed by produce (15 percent).7 An estimated 90 percent of the seafood consumed in the U.S. is imported,8 and a 2018 article (citing USDA data on produce for 2016) estimated that 53 percent of fresh fruits and 31 percent of fresh vegetables are imported.9
Over eight years after its passage, FSMA is now close to being fully operational. A food law attorney speaking at the IAFP meeting observed that FDA was getting stricter on its interpretation of the FSMA requirements. The attorney also noted that FDA inspectors are called “investigators,” meaning that their purpose is primarily to find problems in the food facilities they inspect rather than working with the facilities to assure compliance with the law.
The unstated goal of FSMA has always been to consolidate the food supply. Moreover, more retail outlets will be adopting requirements similar to those in FSMA for producers wanting to sell to them. With the way the law now stands, the key to helping local producers survive FSMA over the long term is to educate the public, letting consumers know that local food systems offer the safest, most nutritious foods. This is the best way to stay clear of a regulatory scheme that can put producers who provide nutrient-dense food out of business.
The Weston A. Price Foundation has started a campaign to encourage its members to spend at least 50 percent of their food dollars purchasing raw dairy, meat, poultry, eggs and produce direct from local farmers and artisans. For improved public health and the viability of producers in local food systems, buying more food directly from local producers is a critical step for consumers to take.
- International Association for Food Protection. “IAFP Annual Meeting.” https://www.foodprotection.org/annualmeeting/ .
- Prince G, Crowley S, Anderson N. “S11: Why are we still having food safety failures if we all have food safety systems?” Louisville, KY: Annual Meeting of the International Association for Food Protection, July 22, 2019.
- Andress E, Ceylon E, Edmunds E, et al. “RT15: Cottage foods: harmonizing food safety practices for a growing entrepreneurial industry.” Louisville, KY: Annual Meeting of the International Association for Food Protection, July 23, 2019.
- Bryant V, Detwiler D, Horn J, et al. “RT16: Has the time come for complete adoption of the Food Code?” Louisville, KY: Annual Meeting of the International Association for Food Protection, July 23, 2019.
- McGeary J. “Analysis of the Tester-Hagen Amendment.” Farm & Ranch Freedom Alliance. http://farmandranchfreedom.org/analysis-of-the-tester-hagan-amendment/.
- Kennedy P. Is FDA exceeding FSMA inspection authority? https://www.realmilk.com/is-fda-exceeding-fsma-inspection-authority%EF%BB%BF/.
- Sayler A. “S1: Tracking FSMA quantitative and qualitative impacts on the food industry under full FDA enforcement – Stats, trends, challenges and lessons learned.” Fourth presentation of panel titled “FDA’s FSMA enforcement impact on non-U.S. food manufacturers – Examples: food retailer: examples, case studies and recommendations,” Slide #4, “CDC foods causing foodborne illness 2009-2016.” Louisville, KY: Annual Meeting of the International Association for Food Protection, July 22, 2019.
- NOAA Fisheries. Fisheries of the United States, 2012: A Statistical Snapshot of 2012 Fish Landings. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, 2013, p. 4. Accessed at https://www.st.nmfs.noaa.gov/Assets/commercial/fus/fus12/FUS_2012_factsheet.pdf.
- Karp D. Most of America’s fruit is now imported. Is that a bad thing? The New York Times, March 13, 2018.
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly journal of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Winter 2019