Hearing the Concerns of Maine Growers Striving for Agricultural Diversity

This is the fifth in a series of blogs by Deputy FDA Commissioner Michael Taylor on his multi-state tour to see agricultural practices first-hand and to discuss the produce-safety standards that FDA is proposing.

By Michael R. Taylor

Mike Taylor Visits Bob Spear's Family-Owned Farm Stand

Mike Taylor and colleagues visit the farm stand owned by the Spear family. Bob Spear (center, in the red shirt) is a farmer and a former Maine commissioner of agriculture. He is flanked by Taylor and his wife, Janet Spear.

We arrived Sunday in Portland, Maine, the first stop in our visit to growers and other food producers in New England. The green of Maine in the summer could not be more different from our trip last week to the mountainous desert of the Pacific Northwest.

In Maine, the scale and kind of farming are also different, as are the concerns about FDA’s plans to create science-based, food safety standards. The local-food movement is an important part of the culture here, and a great source of pride.

Many growers are trying to be successful by diversifying or by using innovative business models. Bob Spear, a farmer in Waldoboro and a former Maine commissioner of agriculture, is a good example. He sells much of his crop through his own beautiful farm store, which he and his wife Janet designed, and through community farmers’ markets or directly to stores.

Recently, he has found an excellent new use for some of the winter squash he produces. In the past, he culled and discarded squash with surface blemishes that make then unsuitable for retail sale even though they are perfectly good. Now, rather than throw them out, Spear peels and cuts the squash and sells it to local schools for their lunch programs. It’s a good source of income for him and it’s a good source of fresh, local produce for the schools.

But the fact that he uses his packing house to prepare that produce would make him subject to FDA’s Preventive Controls for Human Foods rule for those activities, in addition to our Produce Safety Rule for other activities. Both rules were proposed in January 2013 as part of the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act. The proposed preventive controls rule would set safety requirements for facilities that manufacture, process, pack, or hold food for people.

Will that discourage innovative approaches like the one Bob Spear has taken? Processing raw commodities creates an opportunity for introducing contamination, but we have to be sure our rules are as practical as possible for each situation.

We heard many variations on this theme of innovation, both in our visits to farms and in a listening session Monday morning in Augusta. Some revolved around the law’s exemption from most of our proposed produce safety rules for farmers whose average food sales are less than $500,000 a year and who sell the majority of that direct to consumers or to retailers or restaurants in the same state, or not more than 275 miles away from them. This exemption, coupled with the fact that FDA has proposed not to cover farms with $25,000 or less in food sales, would mean that many of Maine’s small farmers would not be covered by the rule. In fact, nationwide, we estimate that of 190,000 potentially affected produce farms, 110,000 (almost 60 percent) would not be covered because of their size and manner of distribution.

But exemptions and limitations naturally raise additional questions about how they will be applied. For example, what about dairy farmers who want to try a small produce operation? Would doing so put them over the $500,000 mark when added to their dairy sales? The law says the exemption is based on “food” sales, not produce sales, and this is how FDA has proposed to apply it. Folks in Maine are concerned that this will discourage farmers from diversifying.

Others look at the $500,000 exemption ceiling as a disincentive to grow their produce business. Why should they try to become more successful when their reward will be additional regulatory requirements? In addition, one person I talked to asked what happens if an unexpected jump in sales puts them over the $500,000 sales level. Would they have to be in instant compliance with the produce safety rule? In finalizing the proposed rules, we will try to find practical answers to questions like that.

Just as we saw in the Pacific Northwest, some growers are worried that the cost of meeting food safety regulations will be excessive and could even put them out of business. Our pledge in working toward the final rules is to make them as practical as possible so that we achieve food safety in a way that is workable across the great diversity of American agriculture, from the Pacific Northwest to New England.

Walt Whitcomb, Marilyn Meyerhans and Mike Taylor at Lakeside Orchards

Maine Commissioner of Agriculture Walt Whitcomb, left, Marilyn Meyerhans, owner of Lakeside Orchards, and Mike Taylor.

As we move forward with these regulations, the Cooperative Extension System will be a valuable resource for growers. These federally funded, university-based offices are staffed by experts available to help agricultural producers and small business owners in communities across the country with practical, research-based information. I had a chance to talk with John Rebar, who leads extension in Maine and participated in our listening session. He is committed to food safety and the welfare of Maine’s farmers and will be a great partner in doing this right.

You know the reputation folks in New England have for rugged individualism. Some of the people we met here seemed a bit skeptical of our intentions at first, thinking that we might be big-government bureaucrats going through the motions. I hope we convinced them that our interest is genuine.

Even so, after our visit to the beautiful Lakeside Orchards in Manchester, Maine, I thought it was brave for the restaurant where we had lunch to display this sign: “Welcome FDA.” (And it was an excellent meal!)

Keep watching this space. I will be filing more FDA Voice blogs this week to keep you up to date on what I learn in my travels to New Hampshire, Vermont and Massachusetts.

For more photos of my multi-region tour, visit Flickr.

Michael R. Taylor is FDA’s Deputy Commissioner for Foods and Veterinary Medicine

Recent Related Posts