Editorial: FDA should heed calls to rewrite food-safety rules

New rules being considered by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to implement a new food-safety law would be particularly burdensome to small and organic farmers at a time when Americans want more choices in their food.

This is exactly wrong at a time when Americans want more local produce that is fresh and in season; more farm-to-school food options; and less processed food high in saturated fat and sugar, in order to help reverse obesity and early-onset diabetes in children.

As the nation’s No. 1 farm state, with incredible diversity of crops, farm sizes and farm practices, California has a huge stake in the outcome. The FDA has to get this modernization of food safety right.

President Barack Obama signed the much-needed overhaul of federal food-safety laws in 2011, the first major update since 1938. But the FDA has to establish implementation rules for the Food Safety Modernization Act that ensure safety for all of us and flexibility for very different kinds of farmers.

In their current form, however, the FDA’s proposed regulations don’t strike the right balance. The FDA is drawing a raft of justifiable criticism, particularly for the burdens it would place on small and organic farmers.

The FDA’s current draft is too inflexible. Members of Congress, state agriculture departments and farm groups are urging the FDA to try again by publishing a second round of proposed rules for public comment, instead of just issuing final rules after a review of thousands of comments. The FDA should heed their call.

The current draft, as 36 members of the U.S. House and Senate of both parties wrote on Nov. 22, “would result in a multitude of unintended consequences that would be severely detrimental to national, regional and local agriculture.”

The problems with the proposed rules are legion. They conflict with national requirements for organic farming. Organic farmers cannot use synthetic fertilizers, but the FDA’s draft would make it almost impossible for them to use untreated manure and compost, essential elements of their farm operations and crop rotations.

The rules for manure and compost should be the same under both laws.

The organic rules require four months between application of manure and harvest. That is reasonable and hasn’t led to outbreaks of disease. But the FDA’s draft would require nine months, severely limiting the growing season.

For farmers who have diversified operations, where chickens graze on crops after harvest, as at Full Belly Farm in Yolo County, then they would need to wait nine months for another crop. No more applying manure in November, planting salad greens in April and harvesting three or four weeks later.

In other cases, the rules are simply unclear. For example, are roadside farm stands and farmers markets included in rules about small farmers selling directly to consumers? And what about small farms that sell to food hubs and food co-ops?

Small farmers would have to test surface irrigation water, though there’s little evidence that their irrigation water has caused disease outbreaks. That would have the unintended consequence of driving small farmers to pump more groundwater, which is being depleted at shockingly high rates in California.

The Food Safety Modernization Act was supposed to exempt small farm and food-processing operations, in order to focus resources on higher-risk large operations. But the FDA’s draft rules are so inflexible that they ensnare too many small farmers. The rules should be redone and sent out for a second round of public comment.