Why Small Farms Are Safer

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In 2006 I was--among other things--a vegetable farmer. In New Haven, Connecticut, using Ivy League labor, we grew and sold over 300 varieties of vegetables. Today I am struck with memories of one in particular: a gorgeous crop of spinach we couldn't sell.

During the summer of 2006, an intelligent, concerned citizen stood across from me at our table at the farmers market and proclaimed, "You are not supposed to be selling that ." She was a regular customer. I looked at her, confused: "Selling what?"

"Spinach. Haven't you heard, there's a spinach scare?" She continued in a patient tone and explained that there was an E. coli outbreak, it was in multiple states, that the FDA had linked it to spinach, and that people were advised not to eat it.

Small, local farms, of course, are good for food security and food safety, not bad. The 5,000 people who die every year of food-borne illness aren't dying from my spinach.

I was stunned. I wasn't stunned because of her news about the spinach scare. Everyone knew about the spinach scare. I was stunned because here was a person, likely with several advanced degrees, a regular customer at a farmer's market, who had no understanding of the way things work when it comes to food.

I tried to explain that the spinach, which ultimately poisoned over 200 people in 26 states and killed five, came from the Salinas Valley in California, likely from one farm, and that the contamination was probably caused by human or cow feces brought into the field by dirty floodwater. I also explained that our garden was one mile away from where we were standing, 3,000 miles away from Salinas, and that it had no relation to the spinach or the contaminated water that caused the outbreak.

She listened to me with a suspicious, sideways glance, like I was trying too hard to convince her. Maybe I was trying to get away with something. Her response: "This week, I'll take the arugula."

So why am I thinking about spinach today? Just before summer recess, the House of Representatives approved a bill that will lead to major food safety reform in the U.S.--a country that badly needs it, where 5,000 people die annually because of food-borne illness. And one week later, as though to confirm that such a bill was needed, Cargill had to recall nearly 900,000 pounds of beef because of a salmonella outbreak and over 40 people in at least nine states are ill from it.

This current beef recall deals with contaminated beef from Cargill; the spinach scare was traced to 42,000 bags of Dole Baby Spinach processed during a single shift in one plant. A highly centralized food and agriculture system makes an incidence of contamination a big deal. If something bad happens in one central place, it can make people sick simultaneously, all over the country.

This is a national security issue too: When Tommy Thompson, Ex-Secretary of Health and Human Services, was asked what worried him most on the eve of his resignation, he responded, "I, for the life of me, cannot understand why the terrorists have not attacked our food supply because it is so easy to do." We need a diversified, local food system. That way, when contamination happens in one place, it doesn't make people sick in 26 states.

A battle raged around the new bill because it threatened to allow the FDA to regulate small farmers as though they were major agribusiness corporations. This bill, detractors feared, would treat small, independent farmers with direct links to consumers as though they were Cargill or Dole. Regulators would be guided by the same false assumptions as my friend at the farmers' market: "Small local farm, big corporation... whatever. Quit selling spinach."

Small, local farms, of course, are good for food security and food safety, not bad. The 5,000 people who die every year of food-borne illness aren't dying from my spinach, they are dying from Dole's spinach. Regulate small farmers the same way you regulate Dole, and we might disappear. And when it comes to food safety and security, you want more of us, not less. The big guys need to be watched much more closely. The little guys need to be encouraged to flourish.

Historically, the opposite has occurred: food safety regulations have served to consolidate production and drive small and mid-sized farmers out of business. Mandating new methods and technologies drove small dairy farmers out of business in Vermont in the early 1960s, just as new "leafy greens" laws threatened to shut down small and mid-sized organic salad growers in the aftermath of the spinach scare in 2006. Is this tendency the product of well-meaning, poorly thought through legislation, or is it a conspiratorial "let no good crises go to waste" corporate opportunism? Responses vary depending on which struggling farmer you ask.

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Josh Viertel is the president of Slow Food USA.

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