Food safety regs stifle small farmers

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By Sherry Robinson

During the peanut butter scare early this year, when millions of brown baggers were deprived of a favorite staple, my family kept eating peanut butter. No worries. That’s because our preferred brand is Sunland Inc.

Portales-based Sunland not only makes good peanut butter, it’s a New Mexico success story. Sunland, which operates the state’s only peanut butter plant, is also the nation’s largest producer of organic peanut butter.

I’ve been in the plant (one of the benefits of previous jobs covering business in New Mexico), and know Sunland runs a tight ship.

But even Sunland had to contend with fallout from the salmonella outbreak traced to Peanut Corp. of America. Initially inundated with consumer calls, Sunland employees, along with the National Peanut Board, did their best to reassure people.

“We’ve never had a batch of peanuts test positive for salmonella in the 20 years we’ve been in operation,” Sunland CEO Jimmie Shearer told a farm publication. His company pays for testing above and beyond government requirements. “Our philosophy is to pay for extra safety measures now so we are not paying in lost sales later.”

As the air cleared and the culprits were identified, demand for peanut better returned but not before costing the industry $1 billion in lost sales and production. Just last week, a bankruptcy court judge established a $12 million fund to pay claims of people who got sick or died during the PCA outbreak.

Now, after similar scares over salmonella and other pathogens in spinach, tomatoes, peppers, pistachios, beef and cookie dough, there are lingering fears about food safety.

Consumer groups, pointing out the high rate of food-borne illness and thousands of fatalities every year, are demanding greater accountability and tougher regulation.

The problem with demands that Congress do something is that the result is often new regulation that only punishes companies like Sunland that were operating responsibly all along.

The proposed Food Safety Enhancement Act has become the center of a smallish firestorm. It would give the Food and Drug Administration new muscle to recall food instead of relying on voluntary recalls, increase inspections, examine records, quarantine suspect food and sock food processors with civil and criminal penalties.

Small farmers, organic growers and food processors here and across the nation say the increased fees and paperwork would wipe out small operators.

The bill passed the House in July; all three of New Mexico’s representatives voted against it.

Why would our congressmen defy the Democratic majority supporting the bill?

Because food processors are all around us.

Think of the foods that say New Mexico and you get the idea – chile, pecans, pistachios and peanuts. Also, apples and onions. Plus commercial operations. Some processors are the size of Bueno Foods and Border Foods, but most are small to medium-sized. Add to that the hundreds of mini-processors selling salsa or barbecue sauce from mom’s secret recipe or the ladies selling jam at your local farmer’s market.

Now imagine these folks having to pay a $500 registration fee and write and implement a food safety plan for each food product they sell. Small growers and processors argue that they’re not the problem. Mass-produced food is almost entirely to blame for food-borne illnesses.

Food safety has taken a back seat to health-care reform, but the Senate will soon take up its own bill. The New Mexico Farm and Livestock Bureau has argued that the laws we have are sufficient. What’s needed are well-trained regulators with resources to conduct a proper inspection.

There’s truth in that argument. After eight years of relaxed federal regulation across many fronts, from flood control (Heckuva job, Brownie!) to mining, our existing regulators just need preparation and the organizational will to do their jobs.