The FDA Looks to Crack Down on Manure (Again)

Today's FDA misstep is tomorrow's FDA action.


Last week, the FDA announced it would investigate the use of manure and other biological matter.

Manure is animal poop. Rich in nutrients, it's been used by farmers as fertilizer for thousands of years.

But the agency is skeptical of the safety of the practice.

"The FDA is planning to conduct a risk assessment to determine how much consumer health is put at risk by the use of raw manure as fertilizer in growing crops covered by the final [Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA)] Produce Safety rule, and what can be done to help prevent people from getting sick," the agency detailed. "Before starting the assessment, the agency wants the help of stakeholders in the produce industry, the animal agriculture industry, academia and members of the public in developing the model for this work."

The FDA posted a formal notice in the Federal Register that indicates just what this assessment is all about.

"The risk assessment is intended to inform policy decisions with regard to produce safety," the notice reads.

That the FDA intends to take action on manure will come out of the blue only to one who has a really short memory.

As I've detailed for years, the FDA's proposed FSMA rules would have forced small farmers "to adopt onerous, expensive, and unnecessary farming practices and procedures" that included "tough new regulations for using organic fertilizer," including compost and manure.

Pushback from small farmers and their supporters around the country forced the FDA to reconsider the worst of the proposed FSMA rules. Reconsider the agency did. And now they're back, beating the same drum.

Of course, the fact something like fertilizing crops with manure has been done a particular way for tens or hundreds or thousands of years doesn't make it safe.

Indeed, there's no doubt that pathogens sometimes found in manure make their way onto and into fruits and vegetables and sicken and kill Americans every year.

But there's also little doubt that the FDA's expertise in this area is (charitably) virtually nonexistent. Besides regulating uncracked eggs, as the agency does (poorly), the FDA has little or no experience regulating farming.

The FSMA produce rules, though, paved the way for FDA to inspect American farms.

The USDA, which regulates organic food, including crops fertilized with manure, has both the expertise and existing rules in place to regulate farms.

But that's not good enough for the FDA. "At this time, the FDA does not object to farmers complying with the USDA's National Organic Program standards," the FDA notes in a fact sheet that was updated after its Federal Register call for public comment (emphasis mine).

I'm sure the USDA is happy to hear that. At this time. Farmers who fertilize crops with manure, particularly the small farmers who pushed back against the FSMA produce rules, and who I portray in my forthcoming book, Biting the Hands that Feed Us, won't be happy either.

This pattern—by which the FDA haphazardly attacks a practice, backs down, and then comes back guns ablaze—is a common agency practice.

Remember the FDA's assault on artisanal cheeses in 2014, when the agency declared that the time-tested practice of ripening cheeses on wooden boards violated agency rules?

That was followed quickly by a subsequent issuance of an Urkel-like statement disavowing its own position.

I warned at the time that the agency had neither backed down nor reversed course.

The agency's statement also says that the FDA "will engage with the artisanal cheesemaking community" based on FDA's historic concerns "about whether wood meets [agency food safety] requirement[s.]" It will also "invite stakeholders to share any data or evidence they have gathered related to safety and the use of wood surfaces."

Parsing this language is almost unnecessary. The FDA still wants to ban the use of wooden crates in cheesemaking.

When the FDA "invites stakeholders" to "engage" with its bureaucrats, only bad things happen.

That's exactly what's happening now with the FDA and manure.

When you think the FDA is out of bullets, they've really just stopped to reload.