The FDA is planning a slew of new rules that eventually will govern everything from U.S. farms to foreign imports to processing plants. But many domestic farmers doubt that their foreign competitors will face the kind of scrutiny that they will.
“The stuff that’s coming in from China is not subject to the kind of regulation that American food is,” said Diane Kearns, a fifth-
generation farmer and president of Fruit Hill Orchards, one of Virginia’s largest apple growers with nearly 3,000 acres. “People are being priced out of the business. You can’t make money at it anymore.”
Tom Stenzel, president of the United Fresh Produce Association, which represents the produce industry, said he supports modernizing the food-safety system and doesn’t envy the FDA’s task of drawing up complex new regulations. But he said he hopes the agency will take a more nuanced approach in deciding which crops deserve tighter scrutiny — and which don’t.
“Part of our problem is that each commodity is different. We agree on what the big risk factors are — water, soil amendments, animal intrusion, worker hygiene. But there’s a question of whether the regulation ought to apply the same standards to every single commodity,” Stenzel said. “If you’re in the tree fruit industry — if you’re an apple guy or a citrus grower — you look at it and say, ‘What’s the public benefit of me doing water testing of irrigation water once a week? There’s never been a problem.’”
He also pointed out a dilemma facing many farmers. Some of those who grow crops that would be exempted, such as kale, already follow many of the proposed standards. They might end up asking the FDA to include them under the rules, in part because the regulations might be viewed as a safety stamp of approval.
FDA officials note that the new regulations would exempt farms with average annual sales of $25,000 or less and offer exemptions to certain other farms that bring in less than $500,000 a year and sell primarily to consumers within a 275-mile radius. Smaller farms also would have years longer to comply with the new rules.
FDA listening tour
Plenty of jockeying has taken place to shape the proposals. Comment letters have poured in, and the FDA has extended the public comment period through May. Think tanks and lawyers have parsed hundreds of pages of proposed regulations, and some groups have held seminars to explain the implications to their constituents.
Farmers, activists and industry representatives — including the Grocery Manufacturers Association and the Fresh Produce Association of the Americas — have lined up to make their voices heard during a nationwide listening tour by Taylor and other FDA officials that included small towns and cities such as Washington, Chicago and Portland, Ore.
At the recent meeting in Portland, several growers questioned the FDA’s estimate of the economic impact of the new requirements — the agency has said that the regulations would cost domestic farms a total of about $460 million annually, or $5,000 to $30,000 per farm, depending on size.
According to the agriculture trade publication Capital Press, one local farmer told officials that the new rules seemed like “overkill” for tree fruits, which, unlike some other crops, haven’t been linked to major outbreaks.
“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” said Charles Lyall, a farmer from Mattawa, Wash.
“Rest assured, what you’re saying is being heard,” Taylor replied.
Judd, the Yakima Valley farmer, hopes that’s true. She said she knows other growers, wary of mounting regulations and weary of shrinking profits, who have either sold out to larger operations or simply stopped farming.
“All of these little things just keep piling up,” she said. “It’s just getting harder and harder. At some point, you just say, ‘To heck with it.’ ”