March 5, 2021

On Food Safety, a Long List but Little Money

The landmark food safety law passed by Congress last December is supposed to reduce the frequency and severity of food safety problems, but the roll call of recent cases underlines the magnitude of the task.

“It’s an enormous undertaking,” said Mike Taylor, the Food and Drug Administration’s deputy commissioner for foods, whose job it is to turn the far-reaching law into a coherent set of rules that farmers, food processors and importers can follow and regulators can enforce.

The agency is taking on the expanded mission at a time when Washington budget-slashing means that regulators have little hope of getting additional money and may instead have their budgets cut by Congress.

“We have to have the resources to implement this law,” Mr. Taylor said.

“The stark choice is we either find the resources or we forgo implementing this law the way Congress intended. You can’t build something brand-new without the resources to do it.”

The agency is now in the process of writing the food safety rules called for by the law, with the goal of preventing outbreaks like those this summer. (The nation’s meat and poultry supply was already regulated by the Agriculture Department and is unaffected by the new law.)

One of the most complex jobs involves setting standards for farmers to grow and harvest fruits and vegetables safely. The first draft of the farm rules is due early next year. The agency has not said what they will include, but they are expected to deal with basics like hand-washing stations for field workers, tests of irrigation water and measures to protect fields from wild animals that can track in bacteria.

Investigators in Oregon say they believe that deer may have brought E. coli into the strawberry fields there, so such federal rules could potentially help prevent future outbreaks of that kind.

Yet the standards must take into account a huge variety of crops, farming practices and farm sizes.

The task is all the more delicate because the agency has never before had a major presence on American farms.

For a year and a half, well before Congress passed the food safety law, Mr. Taylor has been on a listening tour, visiting farmers around the country and seeking to allay their fears that an army of food safety bureaucrats will come storming through their fields telling them how to do their jobs.

Recently, he visited Long Island, where he tramped through the sandy fields of the 30-acre Deer Run lettuce farm of Bob Nolan in Brookhaven.

Mr. Nolan said he was initially anxious about the new law but was now eager to help the agency make it work for farmers. Mr. Taylor was joined by several agency employees involved in writing the farm rules, and Mr. Nolan told them that he hoped the visit would help them better understand how a farm worked.

He went over steps he had taken to improve food safety, including creating a tracking system that linked every head of lettuce he sold to the section of field where it was grown and doing yearly tests of irrigation water for dangerous bacteria. And he asked for clear guidance in the rules for techniques like how to safely use composted horse manure to fertilize his fields.

The complexity of the F.D.A.’s task became clear as the day went on. At the second stop, a potato farm in Riverhead, the owner Jimmy Zilnicki said that he knew little about what the government expected of him.

“We’re all just trying to find out what this food safety thing is all about,” he said. Besides, he argued, potatoes were a safe crop and he questioned whether it was worth including them in food safety rules.

Mr. Taylor told him that the F.D.A.’s job was to focus most of its efforts where the food safety risks were greatest.

The third stop was a 65-acre organic farm in Riverhead, run by Eve Kaplan-Walbrecht and her husband, Chris. They grow a dizzying array of crops, from arugula to zucchini, most of which they sell directly to customers through farmers’ markets and buying clubs.

They, too, had made costly improvements with an eye toward food safety, including building a large processing shed with a concrete floor, treated water, a bathroom and refrigerated storage. The new law exempts small farms that average less than $500,000 a year in sales and sell mostly to local customers. But Ms. Kaplan-Walbrecht said that her farm, known as Garden of Eve, brings in too much money to qualify for the exemption.

She worried that the new law could become a burden for small farmers, either by adding paperwork or by unleashing regulators with little understanding of how a farm worked.

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