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Brian Snyder

Food Safety Talks:
NGFN asks insiders about current food safety negotiations in Washington D.C.

Brian SnyderAs the U.S. Senate prepares to vote on new food safety regulations, National Good Food Network consultant Patty Cantrell asks leading participants in the process what they think.

The first interview in the series is with Brian Snyder, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture. PASA has built a network over 18 years of more than 6,000 farmers and others involved in direct marketing and in local and regional supply chains.

Mr. Snyder has been a key player on a food safety task force of grassroots organizations that are members of the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition. NSAC has been a significant voice at the table in Washington D.C. for small- and mid-scale farm interests and has made some progress with its key arguments in the House and Senate deliberations.



Patty: Brian, let's get a sense first of why you and PASA have put so much time into the federal food safety negotiations. What's at stake?

Brian: When concern about food safety legislation started to emerge a year ago, we recognized right away that this is something that could affect all of our members. We've seen firsthand with our dairy farms here in Pennsylvania the damage that can be done when government and industry team up to “improve” things.

There's an assumption -- in industry, in government, and among the general public -- that the path to safer food is to bring it all into one place, treat it, and send it back out. The fact that the assumption doesn't change, even though contamination keeps happening, is scary. That assumption is driving the process and, from our experience, it ends with farmers losing their marketing and pricing power.

Dairy farmers have completely lost their marketing power in yielding to the trend to send their milk off to be dumped into a big tank somewhere, commingled with everybody else's milk, and then pasteurized, and even UHT (Ultra Heat Treated). They can't withhold their product, so there's no competition at all.

In the past decade in Pennsylvania, we've seen a precipitous drop in the number of dairy farms to almost half what they were just a decade ago. This comes in part because of centralized food safety thinking, which helped consolidate the industry with high-tech, high-cost treatment of problems that a more diversified dairy industry would not have.

Another way to think about food safety is risk reduction; that is, minimize risks before you have to "treat" them. The best way to do that is to diversify the entire system to the greatest extent possible, from production to marketing, and then to employ agricultural practices that help to prevent threats from entering the system in the first place.

We contend that massive aggregation of food actually creates more food safety problems than it solves.  Our assumption is the more diversification -- on a single farm, in a region, or in a marketplace -- the better. We also want market power to stay in the hands of farmers so they have complete control over where and how they sell their products and what prices they set.

All of this is at stake in the food safety legislation now before Congress.  The lessons we’ve learned from working with our dairy farmers are applicable to all other classes of food that are covered by this debate.


If the Senate bill passed today, as is, what would some of PASA's members face?  What if the House bill became the law? Would things be different?

One simple example of the problems they’d face, in the case of either version of the legislation, is the need for food facilities to maintain a “food defense” plan. If you have a farm growing a thousand acres of leafy greens, you can imagine ways it might be vulnerable to a terrorist attack, like a plane flying over a field in the middle of the night spraying some pathogen. But none of that is relevant to the small farms we work with. It's not likely to happen, and in any case our defense is the wide diversification on each farm, the diversity among farms, and the widely scattered nature of the growing that's going on. It's a whole different approach.

So, what if our farmers have to do food defense plans in addition to other required paperwork?  What if they have to install bathroom facilities in the field instead of just using the bathroom in the house? These kinds of expenses, prorated across the number of acres involved, are tremendous and much higher than for any of the big farms out West. These costs are per farm, not per acre. This is not lost on the Western growers; they understand that with these kinds of regulations in place it immediately shifts a market advantage to them.

Some of the language we've succeeded in getting into the Senate bill creates a necessity for FDA to at least stop and look at these issues (i.e. relative risk) along the way as they are writing the final rules. The language gives us more leverage in the process when the rules are put out for public comment.

The conference committee process (of integrating the House and Senate bills) will be pretty intense and might last all summer. We're going to have to fight to get as much of this language as possible from the Senate version into the final bill.


You've been instrumental in getting lawmakers to recognize and make some provisions for "identity-preserved" foods. What is that, and why treat it differently? 

There's just a huge difference between food that carries the identity of the farm where it was produced all the way to the consumer, and foods that are completely anonymous. Again, commingled milk is a good example, or hamburger. It's estimated that a pound of hamburger you buy at the grocery store will have meat from hundreds of cows in it, coming from dozens of farms located perhaps in multiple countries. That's a fundamentally different product than hamburger coming from one cow and a single farm.  The same could be said of pre-processed and bagged lettuce mixes that are often the source of food safety problems these days.

If it's identity-preserved, you don’t need to require the same level of inspection and certification as you would for a product that's anonymously sourced.  It’s not that problems would not occur in an identity-preserved scenario, but the effort to trace and correct a problem in this case would be a snap.

Senator Brown (D-OH) has an amendment that is being negotiated into the Senate bill that would include identity-preserved language. In the House bill, there is an exemption from traceability standards for food that is sold directly to the public, which includes identity-preserved food that goes into a grocery store or restaurant directly from local farms.


Traceability is a central organizing theme in the proposed food safety legislation, as well as parallel work at the Food and Drug Administration to develop new nationwide produce safety standards. Sounds OK, but traceability is still contentious. Why? 

Traceability is fundamentally no different than identity preservation. Trying to instill it into the commingled commodity stream of raw products is the difficulty. The question is what kind of traceability.

A lot of our food safety problems are coming from bagged, ready-to-eat leafy greens, for example. Those bags can easily have pieces of leafy greens from different farms. We're not going to put a microchip into each piece of leafy green in the bag. It's all going to be approximate. It will never be as good as the traceability involved in direct marketing. If you buy something you know came from a single farm, it's fundamentally different than a bag of greens that can be traced back to several farms.

Exemptions, like those now proposed by Senator Jon Tester (D-MT) seem to be one way out for the smallest and most local farmers, and for lawmakers and agency staff who don't know what else to do for this group. What are the ups and downs of exemptions from your perspective?

Fundamentally it hurts us to be talking about exemptions based on size. The whole idea of exemption suggests that we want to be devoid of responsibility, and that is not what we're trying to communicate here. We're trying to say that we (sustainable and organic food producers) have for decades been taking responsibility for food safety, and FDA is kind of a Johnny-come-lately in that regard.

Food safety regulations are focused on where pathogens are and how to get rid of them, like chasing down terrorists. In sustainable and organic production we're talking about a whole system, about how the pathogen got into the system in the first place, and even how the problem might not be the presence of the pathogen but the absence of other microbes that protect us from the bad bugs.

There are already a number of exemptions in the current process. For instance, livestock producers that are contributing a number of pathogens to the system are not being considered at all.

So it's no wonder that many people working to build a sustainable food system would also want to be exempted, especially after they have been doing everything possible the last 20 to 30 years to produce safer food. But I think we need to take the high road here and ask how we can be rewarded for our good farming practices, instead of begging for exemptions.


Food buyers have long been taking their own steps to protect themselves from food safety liability while Congress and the FDA work on writing new laws and standards. What's happening out there in the market, and how does it affect your members?

In one way, it's a good thing FDA is getting involved because we don't want every retailer to implement its own standards. We especially don't want retailers to compete on the basis of saying that, somehow, their food is safer than their competitors.

It's already happening. Even little tiny farms are being asked to go through fairly significant inspections, and pay for them, to get their food into grocery stores and the like.

Just maybe, if FDA steps in and we have standards based on different levels of risk, a smaller farm might be able to achieve approval at a reasonable cost and be able to compete fairly with larger operations.  Grocery stores have for years accepted products with a stamp of approval from USDA or FDA, and not felt like they have to ramp up and add their own expectations.

At the same time, the sustainable food movement may never fit well with large commercial grocery stores. Other retail options are already emerging to connect growers and consumers of this food. For instance, I feel we have only scratched the surface of what the CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) model of retailing can do to further this movement.


If you could wipe the slate clean and write a food safety bill for America, what would be your top three provisions?

I would start by regionalizing everything. I would create regional authorities to work on these issues with regionally specific task forces involving the public, state government, farmers, and consumers in each region.

The regional authorities would look at environmental needs, human health, marketing options and other factors on the ground, like the way farming is structured. There are such big differences between farms in Pennsylvania and farms in California that the thought of the same body of regulations addressing both is almost laughable, but that’s where things are headed right now.

Second, I would draw a very strict definition between the commodity food stream and identity-preserved foods. I would drive the entire bill based on that distinction; one regulatory track for the commodity stream and one for identity-preserved.

Third, I would create a National Organic Program style of certification where the FDA would approve locally-based certifiers that could then work with individual farms, processors, and even retailers to achieve food safety objectives. Fees go to those local certifiers who help support the local economy as well. In contrast, the theory in the current House bill is to charge all the small facilities in the country fees that will pay the FDA to inspect the big facilities where most of the food safety risk resides.

So that’s what I’d do – promote regionalization, identity preservation and locally-based certification.  The direction of food safety legislation in Congress and pending regulations at FDA would have missed all of these points if PASA and other organizations like us had not been involved.  We still have a long way to go to make sure ideas like these exist at the end of the process, however.

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