RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
The Food and Drug Administration is shifting its focus from responding to food contamination to preventing it. The agency is in the middle of its first major overhaul of America's food safety practices in more than 70 years. It's aiming to reduce an estimated 3,000 deaths each year in the U.S. from food-borne illnesses. But as Emily Corwin at New Hampshire Public Radio tells us, small farmers are pushing back.
EMILY CORWIN, BYLINE: According to these 1,600 pages of rules, non-exempt farmers must monitor and document water quality, freezer temperatures, encroaching wildlife and any other possible sources of contamination. These are the things small farmers are fighting from the FDA's proposed food safety requirements. But at the nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest, food safety director Caroline Smith DeWaal says small farmers are overreacting.
CAROLINE SMITH DEWAAL: These are commonsense safety measures they need to be taking anyway.
CORWIN: DeWaal has been fighting for produce safety reform for more than 15 years. But she says Congress didn't get on board with a new law until the food industry decided to back it. She says that happened after a big E. coli-tainted spinach outbreak in 2006.
DEWAAL: The outbreak actually resulted in people not buying or eating spinach not only the fall that it happened, but for many years afterward.
CORWIN: DeWaal says commercial growers and grocers see real revenue loss after big outbreaks. That's why they've been fighting for these new food safety rules. But small farmers, especially in New England, tell a different story.
JOE BULEY: It's kind of terrifying.
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CORWIN: At his farm just outside Montpelier, Vermont, Joe Buley washes cucumbers by hand.
BULEY: These will all get turned into gazpacho or chilled cucumber dill soup.
CORWIN: Buley says the cost of complying with the FDA's new rules would stifle his ability to grow, and could put younger farmers out of the business altogether.
BULEY: There's going to be an enormous amount of documentation, which is going to require an enormous amount of administrative time, or fairly expensive software and monitoring equipment.
CORWIN: Mike Taylor is deputy commissioner for foods at the FDA. He says most farmers who make less than $500,000 of sales each year are at least partially exempt.
MIKE TAYLOR: Together, those exemptions exempt 110,000 of the 190,000 produce operations in this country. That's almost 60 percent.
CORWIN: The problem is all the exceptions to the exemptions, especially for small farmers who don't just farm, but, say, turn a cucumber or tomato harvest into soups and sauces. Joe Buley says it's doing things like storing and processing produce that can disqualify farmers from those exemptions.
BULEY: You've got to dig a little bit deeper into the fine print. You're going to find you're exempt, except. And the exception is going to nail you. You're going to get it.
CORWIN: But for all the anxiety the new rules have stirred up among small farmers, the FDA still lacks funding from Congress to enforce them. Without that funding, farmers like Buley, who want to sell to mainstream supermarkets, may find its grocery stores anxious about lost revenue, and not the feds who are demanding they comply. For NPR News, I'm Emily Corwin.
MONTAGNE: This is NPR News.