In the world of activism, there is a “power ladder.” A group or movement starts by being powerless, then moves up to being recognized, at the table, able to make a deal, able to make a deal stick and, finally, able to participate in governance. A group may be at different stages of the power ladder on different issues and will invariably shift forward and backward over time.
The local foods movement as a whole is at the table and has achieved some victories in making deals. The problem often lies, however, in making the deal stick. All too often after declaring victory on a bill, groups become complacent, only to find their hard-won deal is undone in the rule-making process.
WAPF was one of the organizations that fought hard for important protections for small-scale producers from new burdens under the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA). And now we have to stop the FDA from undermining that victory in the rulemaking process. The agency is just beginning the process and has asked for informal comments on several specific topics in preparation for proposing new rules. WAPF has provided comments on issues such as which facilities should be exempted as “very small businesses,” how to classify low-risk facilities, and factors that FDA should consider in prioritizing inspections and enforcement activities. Most recently, WAPF provided comments about hazard analysis plans for facilities making traditional foods such as raw milk cheeses, bone broths, and lacto-fermented vegetables. WAPF’s comments stated:
The government’s approach to HACCP (Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points) plans has frequently involved “kill steps” such as pasteurization or irradiation. The FSMA, however, requires a HARPC (Hazard Analysis and Risk-Based Preventive Controls” plan, not a HACCP plan. See FSMA §103. In assessing HARPC’s, the FDA should therefore look at risk reduction rather than kill steps at critical points.
As included in FSMA, the Tester-Hagan amendment provides that facilities that gross under $500,000 annually and that sell more than half of their products directly to consumers or to local restaurants and retailers are not required to do a HARPC plan if they provide documentation of compliance with state or local food safety laws. See FSMA §103(l). This amendment relieves small, direct-marketing facilities from the burden of a federal HARPC plan.
There will still, however, be very important differences in scale in the facilities that are subject to the new HARPC requirement. From small wholesale operations to medium-scale direct marketers, there will be numerous facilities subject to the regulations that are a fraction the size of the large processors to which almost all of the foodborne illness outbreaks have been traced. WAPF urges the FDA to include scale-sensitive considerations at every step of the process.
The comments went on to provide concrete recommendations of the sorts of provisions that are reasonably necessary to protect food safety with bone broths, raw milk cheeses, and lacto-fermented vegetables. Just as importantly, WAPF’s comments pointed out what should not be required of artisanal producers of these foods. It is all too likely that FDA, based on its typical industrial-food model, would consider a hazard analysis plan inadequate if it didn’t include provisions such as stainless steel aging boards for cheese or chlorine rinses for vegetables used in fermentation or similarly misguided requirements. WAPF’s comments put the agency on notice that these provisions are both unnecessary and counter-productive.
The comments concluded:
It is critical that FDA’s new regulations recognize the unique characteristics of raw milk cheese, bone broths, and fermented vegetables. These traditional nutrient-dense foods have excellent track records for safety. Treating these artisanal foods as if they were inherently dangerous would undermine their quality, while not serving the mission of food safety. We urge the agency to learn more about these traditional foods and to approach the regulatory process from that perspective, rather than applying the typical assumptions developed through experience with mass-produced industrial products.
During this time, while FDA is gathering information in preparation for writing the rules, it is most effective for organizations to file comments, and WAPF will continue to speak up for both consumers and local producers. Once the agency publishes proposed rules, we will need every member to submit their own comments to show the level of public concern. So please stay tuned for action alerts to help us protect our food.
Animal Identification, Round Two
Along with food safety, the issue of animal identification has also re-emerged. When USDA announced that it was dropping its plans for the National Animal Identification System (NAIS) back in early 2010, Secretary Vilsack also announced his intention to propose a simpler, more limited program for animal traceability. That new proposal has finally been released, and the agency is taking public comments through November 9.
The new rule is significantly less onerous than NAIS was, primarily because it (1) applies only to animals that cross state lines, and (2) provides for the use of low-tech forms of identification, rather than requiring microchips and RFID tags. But the proposed rule suffers from some of the same serious flaws as NAIS.
Fundamentally, like NAIS, the new “animal disease traceability rule” is a solution in search of a problem. The agency continues to promote the program based on generalized claims about the need for increased traceability, while not responding to requests for a specific, fact-based analysis of the existing programs and what the weak links are. The reality is that the agency remains focused on what will help the export market, rather than on animal health.
Because of its focus on market issues, the agency has included provisions in the proposed rule that are both unnecessary for animal health and unfairly burdensome. The most prominent issue is the inclusion of what are known as “feeder cattle” – cattle under the age of eighteen months, the majority of which are destined to be slaughtered for meat at an early age rather than entering the breeding herd. Because of their short life-span, these animals are not significant factors in long-term chronic diseases such as tuberculosis, brucellosis, or mad cow disease. Moreover, feeder cattle vastly outnumber breeding cattle, and including them in the program significantly increases the burden on producers. The program would require even those cattle that go directly to slaughter to be tagged and accompanied by an interstate certificate of veterinary inspection or other paperwork. This does nothing for disease control—but it does provide the meat packers with the important benefit of traceable animals for the export market without having to pay premiums to producers.
The inclusion of feeder cattle in the program is even more burdensome because of the record-keeping requirements. Vets and sale barns would have to keep records of every tag distributed and copies of every interstate certificate of veterinary inspection for five years, long after most of the cattle will be dead. Copies of these records would also have to be maintained by state agencies, creating costly and inefficient duplication.
Small-scale diversified farms face additional challenges because of the provisions for dairy cattle and poultry. While the proposal would phase in feeder cattle in the beef industry, the proposed rule would immediately require identification and interstate certificates of veterinary inspection for all “dairy cattle” that cross state lines, even young males. The definition of “dairy breed” is vague and overbroad, creating additional problems for farmers who use dual-purpose breeds such as Devons and Dexters.
The requirements on poultry would be devastating for many pastured poultry and backyard poultry owners. The proposed rule allows vertically integrated operations to use group identification for thousands of birds, but mandates individually numbered permanent leg bands for any bird that crosses state lines and is not kept in an isolated group “throughout the preharvest chain.” Since many pastured poultry operations and backyard poultry owners order day-old chicks from hatcheries scattered around the country, the rule will apply to many people who never take their birds across state lines after that first shipment.
It’s time for producers and consumers to speak up again. While the agency listened to some of our concerns about NAIS, it’s clear that the full message was not yet heard.
Comments must be submitted to the USDA by November 9. WAPF, FARFA, and forty-seven other organizations have requested an extension, but we do not know yet whether it will be granted. You can submit comments online at www.regulations.gov/#!submitComment;D=APHIS-2009-0091-0001 or by mailing them to: Docket No. APHIS–2009–0091, Regulatory Analysis and Development, PPD, APHIS, Station 3A–03.8, 4700 River Road Unit 118, Riverdale, MD 20737-1238.
At the time this article goes to press, we are still working on a full analysis and sample comments. You can find a copy of the proposed rule and more information at www.FarmAndRanchFreedom.org.
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly journal of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Fall 2011.