FDA Begins Implementing Awful Food-Safety Law

FSMA will put many small farmers out of business.


America's farmers are on the alert this week as key provisions of the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) begin to take effect. The law, which is being rolled out by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) over several years, could have far-reaching implications for who grows—and doesn't grow—the food you buy.

When Congress passed FSMA (pronounced FIZZ-muh) in late 2010—President Obama signed it into law during the first days of 2011—supporters touted the law as the most sweeping update of our nation's food-safety laws in more than 75 years.

But both the law and its implementation are controversial. Many small farmers feared—and still fear—that the new regulations and high costs of complying with the law could squeeze them out of business. As evidence, they point to the giant farms and food producers who supported the law.

While FSMA contains several provisions, one key facet of the law requires the FDA to "establish science-based minimum standards for the safe production and harvesting of fruits and vegetables."

Bigger farms must comply sooner. Hence, as of this week, the produce rules apply only to America's largest farms. That means that this year, farms with more than $500,000 in sales will have to comply with FSMA. Next year, the rules will also cover farms with between $250,000 and $500,000 in sales. And in 2020, the rules will cover very small farms—those with revenue between $25,000 and $250,000.

While this gradual implementation is likely better for small farmers than the alternative—being forced to comply right now—that hasn't allayed their fears.

Many of those fears pertain to compliance costs. The relative compliance costs for small and large farms are stark. As I've noted previously, the FDA estimates FSMA will cost America's small farms about $13,000 each per year and its larger farms about $30,000 per year. That means that for some small farmers, compliance costs could eat more than half of their revenue. For larger farms, compliance costs will amount to less than one percent of revenue.

As I detail in my book, Biting the Hands that Feed Us: How Fewer, Smarter Laws Would Make Our Food System More Sustainable, small farmers' concerns about that part of the law have been legion.

This week, one Maine farmer shared his concerns about the law. Farmer Goran Johanson, while embracing some of what FSMA requires, says the law will place "a huge financial burden on us as farmers." He worries "there could potentially be a lot of infrastructure needs necessary" at his farm, including that he'll have to scrape together funds "to build a new produce packing house that will have washable surfaces on everything, which is an expensive investment."

Just how much will FSMA benefit consumers? According to the FDA itself, not much.

Even if FSMA is implemented perfectly, the law won't make our food supply much safer. That's according to the FDA's best-case estimates which, I wrote in 2014, would mean "a paltry reduction in cases of foodborne illness of between 3.7 percent and 5.4 percent." Again, that's the best-case scenario. A more likely outcome, I estimated, also using FDA data, is that foodborne illness cases might drop by around 2.6 percent.

Why such little impact? As I detailed in 2015, FDA regulations are only capable of preventing, at most, "only one out of every five cases… of foodborne illness." That's because four of every five cases of foodborne illness can be traced to causes that have nothing to do with foods regulated by the FDA.

Congress never should have passed a law with such high costs and such little return.

Around the country, state agriculture departments and agricultural extension agents are working feverishly to help local farmers prepare to comply with the regulations. In five years, when there are even fewer small farmers than there are today, we'll be able to look back to this week as the beginning of that sad and unnecessary end.

NEXT: The Puffy Coat Makers at Patagonia Want You to Subsidize Their Rich Customers

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  1. Cost/benefit analysis – you can’t put a price on good health. Even if it costs a gazillion dollars, if it save just one life……

    1. I’m going to assume that was sarcasm. Corporations do, can and will continue to put a price on everyone’s life. Cost analysis is a thing. In litigation, insurance, publicity, wages, sports… Lives have a dollar value.

      1. So when you “save one life” via tighter rules on pollution emissions from your local power plant… Are you calculating in the fact that many lower-income people will now no longer be able to afford air conditioning, because AC is more expensive? And that more of them will die in the next heat wave?

        When (as has been done) you have mega-tons of old uranium-mine tailings (scrap rock), that have two atoms of cooties per 100 tons… You just MUST move it to a safe landfill… That you are actually more likely to kill a person or 5 or 10, running them over with the earth-hauling trucks, than you are to prevent a single case of cancer?

        The cost-benny analysis being run is NOT truly intelligent or truly practical! They stack the deck, and they stack it big-time, against private wealth (including the wallets of poor consumers), and in favor of Big Government! Wealthy people live longer… Get OUT of the way of my health and wealth!

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        1. OK for the benefits, but what about your costs?

          1. See page 2 of https://reason.com/archives/201…..ulations/1 … “Whole Foods” got busted for NOT disposing of “hazardous waste”, in an appropriate way for dealing with “hazardous waste”, when the “hazardous waste” was multi-vitamins that are qualified fro humans to consume! Multi-vitamins that get returned by the customer, are “hazardous waste”, because they contain trace amounts of poisonous selenium! Which we need in tiny amounts, in our diet!

            It is not “regulations” that I oppose, so much as utterly and totally STOOOOPID bureaucrats, who enforce the regs with not ONE tiny iota of common sense! When is the last time that a Government Almighty asshole got fired for “following the rules”? In private business, if you blindly screw over the customers, for NO other reason than “following the rules”, you CAN be fired, and often, WILL be fired!

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      3. Forget corporations, we put a price on our own health/lives every day. You do it when you buy life or health insurance, or when you decide weather or not to buy a particular piece of safety equipment for a hobby/sport. Just because we aren’t necessarily conscious of doing it, doesn’t mean we don’t do it.

  2. This is just another form of Protectionism being instituted by the powerful to enforce a monopoly. Business as usual.

  3. A gazzilion dollars are gonna save one life.. Meaning some elderly guy or gal is gonna die 5 minutes later than he or she otherwise would have! Compromised immune systems, cancer and what-not… They are going to die VERY soon anyway, in some cases!

    TRULY intelligent ratings of cost-benefit analysis would distinguish between a “life saved” = 5 minutes for the old coot, v/s 50 years saved for the 25-year-old. I can NOT recall how long ago it was, maybe the Reagan era… The federal agencies were going to start doing it right, that way, along those lines… But too many people screamed about “age discrimination” and not treasuring the old geezers and their last 5 minutes, so they had to back down… I could not find a link, sorry…

    Particulate pollution is one of these… No, it’s not a good thing… But it kills mostly older folks or folks with way-compromised health…

  4. Many small farmers feared?and still fear?that the new regulations and high costs of complying with the law could squeeze them out of business.

    Like so many such regulations, they sussed out the true goal of this law.

  5. I have trouble believing that $500k in revenue truly delineates a large farm. No sane industry would back a law that consumes 10% of revenue.

    The real players must be a lot larger than that.

    And as I suspected, ERS uses $350k as the definition of “small”.


    1. Yeah that’s nothing. Many smallish family owned farms gross millions a year… Thing to keep in mind is that margins are usually very tight for farmers, so you might gross 2 mil a year and net like 100 something grand a year after all expenses. I can’t even recall what the number was, but I read somewhere years back that the average net profit (not gross, which I imagine would be a lot higher) per acre of corn was something insanely low… Like $16 an acre or something nuts. I thought to myself how ridiculous it was that you’d literally have to have thousands of acres to make like as much money as a low level accountant or whatever… Keep in mind the millions of land value, hundreds of thousands in machinery, number of employees etc you’d need to harvest that much land for so little.

      This is why most truly small farms have died.

  6. Baptists and bootleggers.

  7. Isn’t it a miracle that humans managed to evolve and thrive before the non-voluntary government decided to “protect” them?

  8. It’s just a damn shame the GOP doesn’t hold the house or the senate. The party of freedom and deregulation could repeal this law and save the small farmer.

    1. Some of this is all the fucked up shit Obama did takes time to roll back because government is lazy and slow.

      The other part of the blame is squarely on Republicans who refuse to roll back government at a fast pace.

    2. I would imagine this is something they should jump on if they actually cared about small farmers. I guess that’s a big if.

      1. You could argue that farmers tend to vote Democrat since so much of what they do is driven by subsidies. I can’t imagine a farmer under the age of 50 that doesn’t factor in all the subsidies when making plans for the next season.

        Maybe the GOP views leaving the regulations in place as some sort of justice.

        1. You need to use your imagination more. I can’t speak much to California or NE farmers, but Midwesterners who receive the bulk of subsidies (which today come in the form of reduced crop insurance prices) by and large voted for trump, and are staunchly republican.

          Its an interesting form of cognitive dissonance

          1. People always “reason” away why their government largess is legitimate, but that other guy over there doesn’t deserve his. 🙁

          2. Certainly not the case in MN. Guess what the F stands for in DFL.

  9. I’m certain those who support this law believe Utopia is just around the corner.

    Er, next corner, maybe.


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  11. Farming: The slow way to bankruptcy.

  12. “Congress never should have passed a law with such high costs and such little return.”

    I wasn’t aware that Congress even has the power to regulate what goes on within the boundaries of a state.

    1. Congress can regulate anything. Because commerce clause… or something.

  13. Hey guys, if we would just pass all the right laws we could eliminate literally EVERY problem in the world. And the bad feelz too! We just need to keep passing more and more laws, and eventually everything will be perfect. If a single apple costs $38,642.38 so what? It’ll be worth it because there will be ZERO FOOD BORNE ILLNESS!

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