Stefan Hard / Staff Photo Hubbard Farm Road in Waterbury shows the effects of the January thaw Tuesday. A proposed Waterbury road budget increase would pay to upgrade it and nearby Gregg Hill Road.
Vermont lawmakers will meet today at the Statehouse to figure out how a new federal food safety law will apply to Vermont farmers.
The law, known as the Food Safety Modernization Act, was signed last January and may end up requiring Vermont farms to have stricter hygienic standards in the field and inside processing areas.
Concerned with food contamination and resulting illnesses, the federal Food and Drug Administration has proposed setting new food production safety measures. The House Agriculture Committee will hear from the Food Safety Task Force, a group of representatives of Vermont food producers and the food service industry.
Most Vermont food companies and businesses already follow good hygiene and sanitation practices. But a big difference, said Ginger Nickerson, coordinator of good agricultural practices at the Center for Sustainable Agriculture at UVM, is that the FDA wants them to document their procedures.
“It’s really really simple stuff,” Nickerson said. “It’s things like making sure that there’s a bathroom on the farm and places for people to wash their hands before they start to handle produce. Triple rinsing salad greens, testing your irrigation water if it’s coming from surface water — just very simple, very common sense things.”
The FDA would expect farmers to manage proper hygiene of workers’ hands, have clean irrigation water and clean processing equipment. The plan would also expect companies to outline and submit safety plans, monitor and show clean operation spaces and explain to the FDA how safety efforts would be corrected in the future.
“The new law should transform the FDA from an agency that tracks down outbreaks after the fact, to an agency that focused on preventing food contamination in the first place,” Caroline Smith DeWaal of the Center for Science in the Public Interest said in an article by The Associated Press.
Vermont lawmakers don’t know yet how much the law will affect Vermont farmers and the farming economy. The law is still in an infant state and is being vetted by lawmakers and farmers, who have not fully developed their opinions.
“This may work just fine for the large folks,” said Rep. Carolyn Partridge, D-Windham, chairwoman of the House Agriculture Committee. Speaking of how small farms may be affected, Partridge responded, “It’s a huge burden, potentially, given the expense.”
Mark Curran, co-owner and co-founder of Black River Produce, said the new potential provisions would have little impact on his business because it buys and sells produce, never processes it.
“If we were to buy lettuce, cut it and then sell it,” Curran said, “that would be a whole different ballgame.”
The rules wouldn’t apply to all farms and food types — only produce such as berries, melons and leafy greens that are grown, harvested, packed and held for distribution. To protect small farms under the law, Montana Sen. Jon Tester amended it to exempt certain farms meeting two criteria.
First, food sales for a farm must average less than $500,000 per year in the past three years. Also, the majority of sales need to be direct to consumers, restaurants or retail food establishments in the same state or no more than 275 miles away.
If a farm produces for personal or on-farm consumption, it would be exempt, as well as the smallest farms with an average annual sales of $25,000 during a previous three-year period.
Rep. Will Stevens, I-Shoreham, a member of the Agriculture Committee and a farmer himself, says that the people he’s so far discussed the law with haven’t been too concerned.
“Generally speaking, I’m not hearing people pulling their hair out one way or another,” he said. “Things could change as things come to light.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates 3,000 deaths are caused each year by food-borne illnesses. Since last summer, up to 400 illnesses and seven deaths have been linked to an outbreak of listeria in cheese and salmonella in peanut butter, mangoes and cantaloupes. However, actual numbers of those affected by food-borne illnesses are likely much higher.
“The thing about food-borne illness is that it’s underreported,” said University of Vermont Extension food safety specialist Londa Nwadike. “It’s definitely more. We don’t know how much more.”
With information provided by the Vermont Department of Health, Nwadike said the estimate of cases per 100,000 people for salmonella is 13.6. On the other hand, Cryptosporidium, an intestinal parasite infection, is estimated at 37 per 100,000 people. The difficulty with projecting the information, Nwadike said, is because most instances are not diagnosed and go untreated.
“From my perspective, I feel like it’s very important that our food supply is safe,” Nwadike said.
Rep. Will Stevens agrees: “You can’t speak against food safety, because everybody should have access to safe food.”
The FDA estimates that almost 2 million annual illnesses could be prevented, but it could be several years until new rules prevent outbreaks.
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