Local Food Hub helps small farmers prep for big changes to food safety laws

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New federal regulations for produce growers and distributors are coming—and they could significantly impact small farms. File photo. New federal regulations for produce growers and distributors are coming—and they could significantly impact small farms. File photo.

The first major update to food safety regulations since the 1930s is coming down the pike for America’s farmers, and the impacts could be big for produce growers—including those in Central Virginia.

The Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) puts what was previously a voluntary and industry-driven effort to avoid produce contamination under the direct supervision of the Food and Drug Administration, which will have broad new powers to regulate the growth, harvest, and distribution of fruits and vegetables.

The FDA is still in the process of turning the 2010 law into a set of rules dictating sanitation practices, water quality controls, livestock and wildlife management, and how produce is stored, packaged, and tracked on farms. Another set of regulations will focus on safety in produce processing and distribution centers.

The same rules won’t apply to everybody, explained Adrianna Vargo, director of grower services for Charlottesville-based, nonprofit agricultural distribution network the Local Food Hub, which is closely tuned to the changes coming from Washington. Its own educational farm in Scottsville and distribution warehouse in Charlottesville will need to keep up with the rule changes, and it also serves as a resource for some 70 small farms in Central Virginia trying to navigate the new regulatory landscape.

Many small local farms won’t be legally required to make changes, said Vargo. There are lots of exceptions to the rules, but broadly, if farmers’ annual sales total less than $500,000 and half of that business is direct-to-consumer, they’re exempt. But for the small farms that will be regulated, getting up to speed may be a real burden, Vargo said.

“Even though there’s flexibility built into the FSMA, the actual implementation is geared toward the larger corporate farms that have more resources and more staff time,” Vargo said. “Either you’re exempt or you have to deal with the whole shebang.”

And the whole shebang is pricey.

“It’s in the thousands of dollars per year, because you have to have multiple inspections, multiple water tests, and infrastructure upgrades to get compliant”—costs farmers generally have no choice but to eat, said Vargo

Even exempt farmers may find themselves under pressure, she said, because buyers will likely start to demand compliance from everyone. Vargo worries that could stall what’s been a great trend in local agriculture: getting even tiny farms looped into a distribution network that includes bigger end consumers, like schools and hospitals.

The Food Hub is working closely with Virginia Cooperative Extension to help farmers stay ahead of the curve. The USDA’s existing Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) program has for years offered a voluntary certification, and the new FDA rules are built off GAP guidelines, said Vargo. Going through the certification and audit process before the hammer comes down can be helpful, and many small farms in the area are now taking the plunge.

If you have a stake in local agriculture, now is the time to study up on the coming changes, Vargo said. The FDA has extended the comment period on FSMA through November 15. “We’re hoping the rules will become a little more flexible through the comments process,” Vargo said.

To read up and weigh in, visit the FDA’s FSMA website.

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