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Cornucopia Institute: Corporate Agribusiness Uses Food Contamination Issue to Muscle-Out Small Family Farm

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
NOVEMBER 26, 2007
12:07 PM

CONTACT: Cornucopia Institute 
Charlotte Vallaeys, 978-369-6409

 
Corporate Agribusiness Uses Food Contamination Issue to Muscle-Out Small Family Farm
USDA Considers Uniform Rules for Leafy Greens
“One-Size-Fits-All” Regulations Would Harm Sustainable Farmers/Environment

 

WISCONSIN - November 26 - In response to the E. coli 0157 outbreak last year in bagged spinach, the USDA is considering federal rules that could potentially require growers of all leafy green vegetables to follow specified guidelines in the fields and during postharvest handling. Farm advocates are concerned that small and medium-sized growers will be placed at an unfair competitive disadvantage.

The USDA has released an Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (ANPR) that they are accepting public comments on. Members of the public have until December 3 to weigh in on the controversial proposal.

“Such one-size-fits-all requirements, while unproven in terms of their impact on food safety, would be disastrous for wildlife, biodiversity, and for the family-scale farmers who are producing some of the nation's highest-quality produce,” says Charlotte Vallaeys, Farm and Food Policy Analyst at The Cornucopia Institute, a Wisconsin-based farm policy and research group. “If regulations dictate uniform growing practices and food safety measures, which might be appropriate for large-scale ‘factory farms’ but onerous and unnecessary for diverse family farms, we risk losing the very farms that grow leafy greens in a healthy and environmentally sustainable way,” she adds.

The rules would likely mirror those that are already in place in California, where farmers have been asked to take extreme measures with little or no scientific justification. While the rules themselves do not directly eliminate biodiversity on farms, they discourage wildlife and vegetation. As a result, some large produce buyers, such as processors, supermarkets and fast food chains, are using those rules as a precedent to come up with their own standards—often extreme measures without scientific backup.

For example, farmers have been told to destroy hedgerows and other non-crop vegetation around farms that provide important habitat for beneficial wildlife, and to erect fences around their fields, which negatively impacts wildlife corridors. Such measures have not been shown to eliminate or reduce the likelihood of E. coli contamination. "We know natural vegetation surrounding farm fields, which is excellent habitat for birds and beneficial insects, reduces dependence on chemical pesticides and decreases possible ground- and surface-water contamination,” Vallaeys stated.

Many growing practices that are the cornerstone of organic and sustainable agriculture would also be discouraged or banned. In California, the rules discourage the development of microbial life in the soil, an outcome that has not been shown to reduce the risk of harmful bacterial contamination. In fact, sustainable farming methods, which promote healthy microbial life in soil, have been shown to reduce E. coli 0157, a deadly variant of the microbe, because the organism has to compete with other microbes and is therefore less likely to thrive.

Farmers already report demands by large corporate buyers not to use certain organic fertilizers. “The aim of these rules seems to promote sterile fields that support few forms of life, except for the leafy greens,” added Vallaeys.

Small and medium-sized family farms selling whole leaf vegetables instead of bagged vegetables—farms that are almost never implicated in food pathogen outbreaks—would bear a disproportionate share of the financial and logistical burden of such regulations. For example, the rules would likely require testing for pathogens at every harvest. Large-scale, industrial mono-crop producers, which might harvest only one to three times per season, would pay proportionally much less than smaller and more diverse farms that continually harvest many types of vegetables throughout the season.

“The contamination problem is in processed, bagged salad (which the industry calls “fresh-cut”) and that’s where the guidelines should focus,” says Kira Pascoe, Family Farm Food Safety Coordinator at Community Alliance with Family Farmers. “All farmers should follow safe practices, but traditional, unprocessed leafy greens should not be in the same category as processed leafy greens or swept up into these inappropriate rules.”

Small-scale family farmers who employ organic and ecologically minded farming practices are frustrated by an unwillingness to tackle a primary pathogen source for the problem—animal “factory farms.”

“The alarming prevalence of the virulent E. coli 0157 in our food system is due to an animal industry allowed to raise cattle in stressful environments on unnatural diets. Allowing such practices to continue while burdening produce growers with the impossible task of sterilizing their farms is folly beyond belief,” says Tom Willey of T & D Willey Farms in Madera, CA, an organic vegetable producer who distributes produce regionally.

Willey adds that, “feeding ruminants what nature intended them to eat—grass—in low-stress, pasture-based environments would go a long way toward solving many of our most serious food contamination problems. Eliminating wildlife habitat and otherwise ‘sterilizing’ my farm will not.”

More: The initiative by the USDA to more closely regulate leafy green production follows an equally controversial rule that mandates the pasteurization of almonds. Mandatory pasteurization of all almonds grown in California by chemical fumigation or heat treatment, which has been a substantial financial burden to many small-scale farmers, also came in response to salmonella outbreaks that were linked to large-scale, industrial producers.

“There are a lot of similarities with the mandatory pasteurization of almonds,” observes Will Fantle, Research Director at the Cornucopia Institute. “In the name of food safety, the government is enacting rules that would encourage a sterile food system at the farm level while doing little to address the root of the contamination problem, which is centralized and industrialized food production. Many of the strains of virulent pathogens involved can be traced back to feedlot-style, unhealthy livestock production.”

The Cornucopia Institute, a nonprofit farm policy research group, is dedicated to the fight for economic justice for the family-scale farming community. Their Organic Integrity Project acts as a corporate and governmental watchdog assuring that no compromises to the credibility of organic farming methods and the food it produces are made in the pursuit of profit.

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