Conservation Aims Deserve Attention in Food Safety Modernization Act

Posted on Thursday, October 24th, 2013 by Dru Marion
Hedgerow, credit: Sam Earnshaw

Until November 15th, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is accepting public comment on the first draft of regulations for the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA). The bill, passed by Congress and signed by the Administration in 2011, represents the most significant overhaul of federal food safety laws in more than six decades.

Historically, the FDA has sought to regulate only the processing, handling, and manufacturing aspects of food safety. The proposed rules now extend considerably to the farm level and have the potential to impact, and possibly prohibit, beneficial farm management practices that contribute to climate mitigation and adaptation. Despite stating an intent to encourage conservation in the Act’s preamble, the FDA has not yet adequately integrated conservation aims – to protect biodiversity, soil, water, wetlands, woodlands, and wildlife – into the draft’s relevant regulations.

As part of the FSMA’s “Produce Rule,” Congress has required that the FDA increase the safety of fruits and vegetables on farms through a standardization of practices specifically related to “animals in the growing area.”  However, while animals can and have introduced contamination to produce production on farms, research has shown that native U.S. wildlife actually tend to have a low prevalence of carrying pathogens. It seems that on-farm wildlife habitats may be unreasonably regarded as the principle culprit of bacterial contamination.

The Wild Farm Alliance, which promotes agricultural practices that preserve wildlands and increase biodiversity, has made the above point in a recent guide to conservation and food safety for producers facing the implementation of FSMA. The publication notes that scrutiny of wild areas on farms reflects a current social and political climate of “food-safety angst,” which has been built up in recent years by a rise in national attention to outbreaks of produce-borne illness and increasing concerns about bioterrorism.

Crucially, important conservation and biodiversity measures such as wetlands, windbreaks, and hedgerows could be considered wildlife habitats that would be thus impacted by the Produce Rule. Under the proposed FSMA regulations, ranchers and farmers may face restrictions on integrated grazing practices and/or be required to remove forested areas and riparian plantings that contribute to carbon sequestration. Enhanced on-farm biodiversity can also help regulate farmscape microclimates, enhance pollinator habitat and improve water quality—all essential climate adaptation services. In order to avoid unnecessarily sacrificing climate-friendly farm management practices, it is essential that the FDA address conservation considerations alongside existing food safety concerns.

This overview from the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) provides an accessible account of how food safety and conservation can be successfully “co-managed” when conservation measures are directly incorporated into food safety standards. NSAC has also launched a campaign encouraging farmers and consumers to respond to the regulations available thus far.

Farm management undoubtedly must be aimed at reducing the risk of pathogen introduction and survival. Keeping food safety auditors happy, however, should not have to come at the expense of responsible on-farm conservation practices.

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