Food 'safety' law to crush some small farmers, may thwart safety improvements

Food 'safety' law to crush some small farmers, may thwart safety improvements

food-safety_300x200“Proposed FDA safety rules frustrate tree fruit farmers,” by imposing costly and complicated rules on them, reported The Washington Post. As the FDA puts “in place a massive overhaul of the nation’s food safety system,” due to the Food Safety Modernization Act, “Few groups have expressed more frustration than tree fruit farmers, who grow apples, pears and a variety of other produce. They complain that the FDA’s approach, in some ways, defies common sense.” The 2010 law is proving far more costly than its supporters promised it would be, in order to get Congress to pass it.

The “Food Safety Modernization Act would impose only modest costs on farmers, or so we kept being assured when it passed in 2010.” But many orchard growers now face tens of thousands of dollars in costs, notes the Cato Institute’s Walter Olson. As he points out, the law’s unexpected costs have caused a furor in some farming communities, and the Town of Brooksville recently became the “ninth in Maine to pass symbolic ‘food sovereignty’ resolution [See Jordan Bloom, The American Conservative; Food Renegade (Dan Brown of Blue Hill)].”

“The FDA has issued two proposed rules to implement the Food Safety Modernization Act enacted in 2011,” notes Brian Wolfman of Public Citizen, who provides details and links.  “The costs to fruit and vegetable growers for complying with the newly proposed produce safety regulation have been estimated at more than $30,000 annually for large farms and about $13,000 per year for smaller farms,” reports The Grower. As Olson, a veteran legal commentator, observes, this could be an enormous burden for some farmers: “How much do typical US farm households make in a year, you may wonder? According to U.S. government figures (here and here, for example) a large proportion of smaller family farms make little or no profit, and are instead supported by the off-farm earnings of family members.”

Liberal members of the “mainstream” media trumpeted the passage of the Food Safety Modernization Act, while ignoring its likely harm to innovation, small business, and the availability of unconventional foods. Gregory Conko, who studies biotech and food safety regulation, earlier explained how the bill’s expensive and cumbersome red tape might thwart “firms from developing innovative new processes and practices that could deliver real food safety improvements.” Earlier versions of the bill backed by left-leaning interest groups and the Obama Administration were even worse, and would have driven “out of business local farmers and artisanal, small-scale producers of berries, herbs, cheese, and countless other wares, even when there is in fact nothing unsafe in their methods of production.” The version of the bill ultimately enacted was less extreme, but even it could “leave tens of thousands of small and mid-sized farms and food stands to be crushed under the weight of rules designed for some of the world’s largest food processors,” Conko noted.

At one point, liberal journalists who supported the law made blatantly false claims about its reach, claiming it wouldn’t reach any small farms that didn’t sell across the state lines.  That false claim, parroted by a left-leaning “fact-checker,” was explicitly contradicted by Section 406 of the bill, which stated that “In any action to enforce the requirements of the food safety law, the connection with interstate commerce required for jurisdiction shall be presumed to exist” even for farms that do not sell any food across state lines.

Federal “food-safety” regulators are hardly omniscient.  Sometimes their rules backfire and harm public health.  In Reason magazine, Baylen Linnekin wrote about “the sickening nature of many food-safety regulations,” like the “poke and sniff” inspection method mandated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture “that likely resulted in USDA inspectors transmitting filth from diseased meat to fresh meat on a daily basis.”

Thousands of deaths from foolish food-safety regulations have occurred in other countries.  A classic example occurred more than two centuries ago, when regional parliaments banned consumption of the potato in much of France, leading to a short-lived national ban beginning in 1748.  “Among the host of diseases the government mistakenly attributed to consumption of the tuber was leprosy.” This ban was particularly problematic because at the time, France was plagued by recurrent famines. French officials banned the potato despite the fact that it had been cultivated and consumed for generations in neighboring Germany, where the potato saved villagers from starvation at the end of the Thirty Years War that lasted from 1618 to 1648. (Many German villages that refused to cultivate the potato died out and became ghost towns due to mass starvation during the war, as marauding troops destroyed or confiscated above-ground crops such as wheat. Villages that grew the potato survived.  Emulating those Germans, hungry Europeans finally began eating the potato. The result was that “for the first time since the Little Ice Age began, 300 years before, Europeans became healthier, were better fed, famines were averted, and populations began to rise again. For example, over the next 200 years, the Irish population tripled.”)

The Obama Administration earlier foolishly banned white potatoes from the federal WIC Program, under the theory that they aren’t healthy enough. But in reality, potatoes are perfectly healthy: they have more Vitamin C than a banana or an apple, are rich in essential minerals, contain all 8 amino acids (unlike most other staple foods like corn), and are not fattening.

Hans Bader

Hans Bader

Hans Bader practices law in Washington, D.C. After studying economics and history at the University of Virginia and law at Harvard, he practiced civil-rights, international-trade, and constitutional law. He also once worked in the Education Department. Hans writes for and has appeared on C-SPAN’s “Washington Journal.” Contact him at


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