Some Mid-South farmers who sell their products directly to consumers worry that a food safety bill in Congress could put them out of business if enacted into law.
U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., has introduced legislation that would divide the responsibilities of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and put food under the purview of the Department of Health and Human Services, which would have more stringent guidelines. The legislation is HR 875 or the Food Safety Modernization Act of 2009.
Keith Forrester, the owner of Whitton Flowers and Produce Farms, which is about 40 miles from Memphis in East Arkansas, got worried when he read a summary of the bill. He is concerned the regulations would make it financially cumbersome to sell his products at the Memphis Farmers Market and other venues.
"It will wipe out the direct market aspect," Forrester said. "It's going to put more of the burden of responsibility on so many levels of the government that it's going to make it basically impossible to directly market food, is what it's going to do. You're going to have to be a corporate farm, man. You're going to have to be a corporate farm to make it work. We're not."
The legislation would establish the Food Safety Administration within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
The new agency would administer a national food safety program, ensure people in the food chain prevent or minimize food safety hazards and require food establishments to adopt preventive process controls. It also would enforce performance standards for food safety, establish an inspection program, expand foodborne illness surveillance systems, require imported food to meet the same standards as U.S. food and establish a national traceability system for food.
"It's going to make it financially impossible for small farmers to operate because of all the regulations that are going to go along with it," Forrester said.
He calls the 10-acre operation that he and his wife, Jill Forrester, have a sustainable farm. They sell sunflowers and produce at the Memphis Farmers Market. He said he plans to have radishes, turnips, mushrooms, lettuce and other early crops at his booth when the market opens April 18.
Maryanne Lessley, the manager of the Memphis Farmers Market, said the food sold there is safe and monitored by the state agriculture departments in Arkansas, Mississippi and Tennessee.
"The Tennessee Department of Agriculture and its counterparts in Mississippi and Arkansas are regulators for us for what is sold at the market," Lessley said. "We don't allow anyone to sell anything that isn't permitted or inspected."
She said food safety is a concern for everyone, but declined to comment specifically about the proposed legislation.
A spokesman for U.S. Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., said small family farms are an important part of the state's economy and culture and need protection.
"We are certainly against this legislation for a variety of reasons," said Claude Chafin, press secretary for Blackburn. "It duplicates the Food and Drug Administration with the Department of Health and Human Services without any apparent improved efficiencies or improved effectiveness."
The bill has been referred to the Committee on Energy and Commerce and the Committee on Agriculture.