A slew of food contamination outbreaks prompted Congress to write the proposed Food Safety Modernization Act. The bill as currently written, though, would target not only the factory farms that have sent tainted eggs, spinach and peanuts to market, but family farms that sell mainly to local communities.
Count Missoula's Clark Fork Organics among the local producers that fear such one-size-fits-all Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulation could leave it and other small farms in the lurch.
"[The proposed regulations] would require a whole new infrastructure setup that we don't currently have," says Josh Slotnick, who runs Clark Fork Organics with his wife, Kim Murchison. "It could cost a tremendous amount of money for us to meet those regulatory demands, and very possibly put us out of business."
The threat to small producers spurred Sen. Jon Tester to introduce an amendment to the bill that would exempt farms with annual sales of less than $500,000 and that sell the majority of their products within the same state or 400 miles. Tester came to Missoula's PEAS Farm last Friday to promote the amendment.
The Helena-based Alternative Energy Resources Organization believes the amendment's crucial to the viability of small farms.
"We feel like it's really important for small-scale food producers and processors to be exempt from FDA regulations—not because anybody should be exempt from food safety regulations, but because state and county regulations and authorities have already been regulating that for a long time, and they do a fine job," says Kevin Moore, the group's food and agriculture program manager.
But local regulations, according to Slotnick, aren't the only things keeping farmers accountable.
"There isn't a question of our food being anonymously lost in a giant food system and never traced back," Slotnick says. "It's a look in the eye and a handshake and handing someone a box of food. They know right where it came from. Our farms are open to being visited. There's nothing to hide."
The bill and the amendment were expected to go up for a vote this week, but as of press time had yet to reach the Senate floor. Tester's office now suspects action won't be taken until after the midterm elections in November.