Free our food

By DEIRDRE FULTON  |  May 4, 2011

So-called Food Freedom Acts that loosen regulations and permitting requirements have been proposed in both Wyoming and Florida, although neither has gained sufficient traction to move forward. Meanwhile, the farmers involved in Maine's push for food independence say they've gotten inquiries from all over the state and country. Cottage (home-based, small-scale) producers and diversified farms everywhere say they're struggling against regulations that they see as tailored to conventional and industrial agriculture.

As evidence, they point to the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), which President Barack Obama signed in January. It expands the regulatory powers of the federal Food and Drug Administration, which oversees food production in the United States (everything except meat, poultry, and dairy, which are in the realm of the US Department of Agriculture). According to the FDA, the bill "aims to ensure the U.S. food supply is safe by shifting the focus of federal regulators from responding to contamination to preventing it."

But the bill also had the unlikely effect of uniting hippie homesteaders and Tea Partiers; both groups say that the bill overreaches.

The FSMA "is a fundamentally flawed bill and is not in the best interest of small farmers," says an online action alert from the FTCLDF, which claims that the "FDA has used its existing power to benefit the pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries at the expense of public health."

And at the website of Freedom Works (a/k/a "Tea Party HQ," a national online gathering place for people who want to "continue the fight against big government!"), the FSMA is described as "something new to control yet more of our lives."

"We don't have a real understanding about how these regulations are affecting small farmers," says Mia Strong, another Sedgwick activist. "One size doesn't fit all. We need to be flexible. It's none of the government's business how I choose to feed my family."

But in fact, concerns about food-borne illnesses may lead to even more government regulation.

...yearning to breathe free

A study released last week by the Emerging Pathogens Institute at the University of Florida found that "the food contaminant that causes the most economic damage is campylobacter in poultry, which sickens more than 600,000 people and costs society $1.3 billion a year," according to a report in the Washington Post. The article continued: "The fact that half of the most costly food pathogens are found in meat suggests that food safety laws at the USDA need an overhaul, similar to the new powers Congress approved for the FDA last year, said Carol L. Tucker-Foreman of the Food Policy Institute at the Consumer Federation of America."

In other words, the Food Safety Modernization Act is here to stay, and its tenets may expand into other arenas. And given that the primary focus of FSMA is increasing inspection and disease prevention, it's unlikely the government would support looser regulations at the state or local levels.

The food sovereignty movement, in its rural incarnation, might not have much logistical application in urban and suburban towns like those around Portland, or among larger-scale operations (although people who wanted to sell goods from their backyard gardens — jams or pickles, for example — might be interested in loosening licensing requirements). But the philosophy applies broadly: as Brooksville farmer Deborah Evans puts it, "food security is knowing the hand that feeds you."

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  Topics: News Features , Food and Drug Administration, University of Florida, food,  More more >
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