New rules may impact produce farmers

Published 8:36 am Tuesday, September 10, 2013

By Stephanie Carroll Carson

NC News Service

The landscape of North Carolina’s farming industry could change if new food-safety regulations take effect.

The changes come as a result of the Food Safety Modernization Act that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) says will prevent almost two million food-borne illnesses.

But the additional requirements will cost small farmers as much as half of their annual profits and Roland McReynolds, executive director of the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association, says it could force many farmers out of business.

“These proposed rules are throwing the baby out with the bathwater,” he maintains. “Instead of unreasonable regulations, the Food and Drug Administration and food safety regulators need to be working to help educate farmers.”

McReynolds says many of the requirements are impractical and unnecessary for small farms in the state that he says already work hard to maintain safe food practices.

The public can comment on the new rules until Nov. 15. Unless the FDA or Congress takes action, the regulations could take effect within the next 12 months.

Wendy Drake Burgess with Hertford County Cooperative Extension, urged farmers to offer their comments/suggestions to the proposed new regulations.

“There are a lot of unknowns at this point and a lot of speculation about how the new rules will affect farmers,’ Burgess said. “While the comment period is open, we encourage those who may be affected to weigh in on the matter and share concerns with FDA.

“When a final rule is published, most farmers, especially the small and very small farmers, will likely meet exemptions or will have several years to make the necessary changes. Regardless of regulation, North Carolina Cooperative Extension will continue to provide tools and resources to farmers to address food safety concerns,” she added.

Herbie Cottle owns Cottle Organics in Rose Hill and has been farming for close to 60 years. He says the additional costs could spell the end of farms like his.

“It’ll definitely shut a lot of them down,” he stressed. “I mean, if you’re not a certain size then you won’t be able to absorb the cost.”

The law does provide some allowances for farms that sell more than half of their produce locally.

McReynolds says that won’t apply to many farms in North Carolina, and the new regulations work against growing consumer interest in locally grown produce.

“That’s what’s inspiring a renaissance in agriculture today and these rules will absolutely put a stop to that,” he says.

Part of the new food-safety requirements call for extensive record keeping for even the smallest of farms.

McReynolds says most farmers work with a reduced staff, and the new rules will prove too costly for them to maintain.

(Roanoke-Chowan Publications Editor Cal Bryant contributed to this story.)