Adventures in Local Food #2

Jan 12 2011 in Foodie by Tim Adkins (admin)

Driving Us Underground?

by Stefanie T. Stauffer

As we left our heroine in our last installment, we were trying to expose the fear of food at the heart of thebureaucratic challenges undermining our ability to chose to eat local. It was a fear that became even more pervasive in late December when the Food Safety Modernization Act (S510) passed the Senate with a rarely-before-seen level of bipartisan support. Both lauded and demonized by diverse groups of people, S510 has caused controversy and conflict in the local food movement for about two years (and I could probably talk about it for that long). So, what I will say here in summary is that although the challenges I faced in launching my Ypsi-Grown, Ypsi-Made hot sauce business were hard to surmount, especially without the support of the Michigan Cottage Food Bill, things are about to get a whole lot more difficult for small-scale growers and producers across the US.

Do you remember that E. Coli outbreak linked to spinach in California a few years back? It’s one of multiple cases cited as evidence for the need to overhaul national food safety legislation with S510. In fact, “cut leafy greens” are now considered a potentially hazardous food due to this outbreak, even though that spinach was contaminated by run-off from a neighboring hog farm, not during the cultivation process itself. But, because of news coverage of food safety scares such as this one, a picture has been painted that agriculture is fundamentally dangerous and the present FDA can’t effectively regulate production to stop foodborne illness. The solution? Extended bureaucratic scrutiny over fruit and vegetable production. Sounds harmless, but where it all goes wrong is that S510 doesn’t address the root causes of food illness outbreaks (the unsanitary, often contaminated growing conditions associated with industrial agriculture).

Actually, it further perpetuates food safety problems by forcing small-scale, safe producers to undergo the same evaluation process and be subject to the same costly bureaucratic scrutiny as the agri-business operations at the heart of food safety scares. In essence, it causes them to industrialize. But, let’s clarify, the legislation is not actively trying to put farmers out of business or make organic farming and backyard gardening illegal. It is trying to police industrial farms and processing facilities that keep sickening people with their food. And that’s good. However, reducing farm diversity and the number of producers in the process tends to make our food supply less safe, not more. In addition, the unintended consequences of S510 make it more difficult for small-scale producers to be in business, thereby making it harder to get local food into grocery stores, restaurants and even farmer’s markets.

Why then are legislators trying to solve a problem caused by industrial agriculture by making agriculture more industrialized? Do they realize that they are either driving us small-producers out of business or driving us underground? I know I’m not the only one who thinks we only make ourselves more prone to food illness outbreaks by accidentally forcing non-industrial producers out of business with costly regulations or by incidentally undermining organic agriculture with further standardization. So I guess our voices must just need to be louder to get us past this regulatory tunnel vision.

To move forward, we need to do more to challenge the ever-present fear of food and point out that food cultivation is not fundamentally dangerous but is made dangerous by unsafe growing and distribution conditions (Bird flu, anyone?). So put down the hand sanitizer and take responsibility for your own food safety choices. Buy from a local producer whose facility you can go see. Or even grow your own. To me, the tangible solution is for us to have more consumer agency, not anonymous agriculture regulated by ever-expanding bureaucracies…

Next time we will talk more about how industrial agriculture makes seasons disappear and allows people to have the bizarre luxury of cheap tomatoes all year, and why we like it. But if you’d like to know more about S510 now, check out: and

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