New laws could hurt Western North Carolina food producers
By Jon Ostendorff • April 13, 2010
ASHEVILLE — New federal food safety laws could drive some small producers in Western North Carolina out of business with added costs and inspections, those in the industry say.
The Senate this week could vote on the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act, a bill that would require more U.S. Food and Drug Administration inspections of farms and processing facilities and stringent record keeping from producers. The agency also would have more power to order recalls.
Local producers and sellers said the law is written for big food companies and supposes the food supply will be more global in coming decades and not more local.
WNC is home to a growing food market, ranging from small kitchens making jams and jellies for sale at places like the French Broad Food Co-op in Asheville to an effort in Haywood County aimed at getting grocery stores to sell local produce.
Exact cost increases for small producers are unclear. But some of the figures, such as an annual government registration fee of $500 in the House version of the bill and mandated inspections that could run $95 an hour, threaten to drive producers making only a few thousand a year out of business, said Harry Hamil, co-owner of the Black Mountain Farmers Market.
He said the law is designed for big companies.
“Big can always afford the cost of increased regulations,” he said. “Small frequently cannot afford it. Small is where we get most of the growth in jobs in this economy.”
The law could have an impact at Blue Ridge Food Ventures, a food business incubator in Asheville that has helped more than 150 producers get started since 2005.
Small producers now have to use a government-approved kitchen to make their products. The new law would require them to develop what’s known as a hazard analysis and risk-based preventative control plan, similar to the plans required of large food companies. Creating a plan that the government would approve takes education and training and means additional expense.
Mary Lou Surgi, executive director of Blue Ridge Food Ventures, said she recently did a plan for juice production. It took two days in a classroom and about a week of research. A consultant can put a plan together for about
The plan requires producers to find and document any potential hazards in the food products they make and then create a process to mitigate each hazard. Producers must also document where their products are being sold to meet a traceability requirement.
Surgi said those are great requirements for large companies buying ingredients from hundreds of places worldwide. But the small producer usually knows where he is buying his ingredients and might have grown some of them himself, which tends to mean a safer product.
Surgi said forcing a local producer to follow the same regulations as Pillsbury or Post will hurt the movement that has brought local foods to schools, hospitals and grocers.
“All that is put at risk if the only people who can afford to be legal are these megacorporations,” she said.
Others in the local food business are also concerned.
Chris Roland, grocery manger at French Broad Food Co-op, said he sells products from about 20 small vendors.
“I would hate to see us lose those small producers,” he said.
At Annie’s Naturally Bakery in Sylva, which is planning an expansion in West Asheville, owner Joe Ritota said more regulation is necessary for big producers, but small producers tend to be more careful. A mistake could cost them a market.
“These are small mom-and-pops that are doing something locally and sustainable,” he said.
The Senate debate on the law comes after a recent U.S. Department of Health and Human Services report found that the FDA inspects less than one-quarter of the nation’s food producing facilities.
The department’s inspector general found more than half of the 51,229 facilities under FDA oversight have gone uninspected in the last five years. The report noted a decrease in staffing at the FDA since 2003.
The government estimates 300,000 people are hospitalized and 5,000 die each year from contaminated food.
Hamil, who said the new regulations would kill a blueberry distribution business he has started, said he supports an amendment by Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., that would exempt small producers.
The small producers would continue to be regulated and inspected under current standards.
“We all support food safety,” she said. “We just want the rules to recognize that someone making less than $50,000 in product a year incurs a lot a lot less risk that the megacorporation.”
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