Small farm exemption issue stirs debate

09/18/2013 10:30:00 AM
Chuck Robinson

Chuck RobinsonTom Stenzel, president and CEO of United Fresh Produce Association, says the produce industry has an unprecedented number of important issues before Congress, , including the need for immigration reform, nutrition program funding in the farm bill and rules for implementing the Food Safety Modernization Act. GROTON, Conn. — During an afternoon of discussing federal issues facing the produce industry on Capitol Hill, only the exemption of small production operations from the Food Safety Modernization Act raised much disagreement at a conference sponsored by the Eastern Produce Council and the New England Produce Council.

The Sept. 17-18 event was the first conference sponsored by the two councils.

Tom Stenzel, president and chief executive officer of Washington, D.C.-based United Fresh Produce Association, outlined a list of issues and moderated a discussion between the audience and two panel members: Doug Fisher, New Jersey secretary of agriculture, and Steven Reviczky, Connecticut agriculture commissioner.

The Food and Drug Administration has extended the comment period on the proposed rules for implementing the food safety act. Besides the exemption for smaller operations, Stenzel listed other concerns with the proposed rules, including water standards arbitrarily applied to commodities across the board; applying the same rules to packinghouses and warehouses as food manufacturing facilities; and rules that are too stringent for verifying that foreign suppliers are properly implementing the law.

After describing what he called an “agricultural renaissance” in his state, Reviczky said eliminating the smaller operation exemption could stifle progress.

“Just the recordkeeping alone (would be problematic). I don’t know how a family farm could possibly keep track of everything they are supposed to keep track of,” Reviczky said.

He said the food safety act in general could force consolidation among producers.

Fisher echoed Reviczky’s concerns.

Stenzel said the rules need to make sense for everybody, regardless of the size of operation.

The food safety act rules are part of what Stenzel called an unprecedented number of major pressing federal issues affecting the fresh produce industry. The others are immigration reform and nutrition program funding in the farm bill.

Stenzel lamented the House of Representatives' inability to compromise and pass legislation. He said undocumented workers represent a majority of the industry’s labor force and that stricter border enforcement has cut into the migrant labor force from Mexico.

He acknowledged Canada’s guest worker program as an example of an operable program.

The Senate passed a comprehensive immigration bill in June that included a path to citizenship for of undocumented workers and new guest worker regulation, but the House rejected it.

Stenzel said he expects some less comprehensive bills to come to the House, and representatives need to know they are expected to take action.

“If they would pass anything, then we’d have a clue how to address this issue,” Stenzel said.

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