How Much Food Regulation Is Too Much Regulation?

Food safety is important, but can't we be safe and smart?

We all want safe food. Honest disagreements on regulatory policies aside, it would be silly to suggest otherwise. There are enough stories of deceptive practices, misleading labeling and health issues, including sickness and death caused by contaminated food, that regulation of food growing, handling and processing procedures is necessary.

However, more nuanced stories like the raw milk sales controversy and farmer/chef Dan Fox’s heritage pig operation show there is a lot of regulatory area that is gray in both desire and need, and the dichotomies don’t end there. The tension between how we grow and produce our food—with its many layers of history, cultural traditions and values—and the somewhat odd mix of changing scientific knowledge and use of the legal system, have profound impacts on farmers, producers and consumers, and for each those impacts are different. All of us are, to a degree, stuck between a rock and hard place. The French have a more colorful way of putting it, but we’ll get to that.

One issue is FSMA, the Food Safety Modernization Act. It’s a sweeping collection of regulations aimed at enabling the federal Food and Drug Administration to focus more on preventing food safety problems rather than relying primarily on reacting to problems after they occur. Makes sense, right? But in a recent edition of the Willy Street Co-op Reader, Mike Byrne, manager of the Willy Street West store, raises some real concerns, not the least of which is the time and money it will require suppliers of the co-op’s produce departments to comply with the new rules. He also wonders if the federal government is over-reaching, out of touch and overly-protective of big business.

A video produced by the Michael Fields Agricultural Institute in East Troy outlines many of the concerns.  Farmers and others interviewed claim the rules undermine some current conservation and organic farming practices, add additional costs and inefficiencies for farmers, limit consumer access to local and organic foods, and make affordable local and organic foods even less accessible to folks of limited means. Examples include a rule requiring any farm that buys and brings into the farm for resale a product from another farm be regulated as a manufacturing and processing operation. If using surface water for irrigation, new rules require costly water tests every week of the growing season. Manure is effectively eliminated as a fertilizer. All of this, concerned folks claim, is going to interfere with the growing desire of consumers to know their farmers and where their food is coming from, as well as deter young people from getting into farming. This is serious stuff.

Knowing what we eat and who grows what we eat, as well as the budding interest in responsible farming as a career choice for young people are at the very heart of a sustainable and, we would argue, safe food system. Regulations that needlessly interfere with these relationships and interests seem inflexible at best and at worst, the death of common sense. Safety is important but why can’t we be safe and smart?

The New Yorker recently told the story of a cooperative of small French dairy farms at odds with the FDA over production of the legendary cheese Mimolette. In short, what makes Mimolette Mimolette are the holes in the rind created by burrowing mites. The FDA says the number of mites in the French cheese exceeds the amount permitted by federal law. The co-op says the French have eaten the cheese for hundreds of years with no problems. A co-op worker sums up the conundrum: “We have a product that we love and we are making good money. On the other hand, we are in a country where we have to follow the rules. As the French would say, we have our ass between two chairs.” It seems to us we could find the genuine article by bringing those chairs a little closer together.

Nancy Christy is the former owner of the Wilson Street Grill. She now runs the consulting firm Meaningful People, Places and Food. Neil Heinen is, among other things, her hungry husband. 

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