WOOSTER, Ohio — When the new federal produce safety rules become effective — a process likely to happen in the next 12 months — they will do so at an additional cost to the farmers who must comply.
The Food and Drug Administration estimates that its new rules, which meet the requirements of the Food Safety Modernization Act, will prevent 1.75 million foodborne illnesses, with about $1.04 billion in estimated benefits.
At the same time, the new rules will cost the produce industry about $460 million annually and $171 million annually for foreign farms that export to the United States.
The rules, which are available for public comment in the Federal Register until Sept. 16, are estimated to cost a “very small farm,“ about $4,700 a year. Small farms would pay nearly $13,000 a year, and large farms, will pay $30,500.
A very small farm, according to the Food and Drug Administration, is a farm that sells more than $25,000 worth of food but less than $250,000, as an average of the previous three years. Small farms are slightly larger, and sell up to $500,000.
And large farms are those that sell above $500,000 a year. Farms that sell less an average of less than $25,000 the previous three years would be exempt.
For growers like Don Bessemer of Akron, the new costs are too much. He figures he could spend nearly $100,000 just to come into compliance, and would see the $30,000 fee for every year thereafter.
He and his wife Carol, decided to lay off 30 workers this year and exit the produce industry, over what they say are too costly regulations.“You just can’t afford to farm,” he said. “The smaller growers are being put out of business.”
The farm was started 117 years ago by Don’s grandfather, William Bessemer. The Bessemers said their age also is a factor. Don is 70 and Carol is 66. Although they’re in good health and don’t want to quit the produce industry, they say the investment in new equipment would not be a good business plan for their age.
Instead, they’re planning for an auction in November.
Don Bessemer said the farm’s workers already followed Good Agricultural Practices designed to keep the food safe. Now, the Bessemers fear they would need to hire separate staff to fill out the stacks of records and documents being required from the federal government.
“What they want you to do is hire somebody to document this,” he said. “We’ve been here 117 years; we’ve never poisoned anybody.”
Some growers say they’ll be prepared for the cost, and expect it could be less as the rule is finished. At a public listening session April 30, Raymond Yoder, of Yoder’s Produce Supply in Fredericksburg, said most of what’s being required is “common sense,” and he doesn’t expect much of a burden to the industry.
But Bessemer is not the only grower who is concerned. The Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association says the costs, as they stand today, could put small farmers out of business.
“Maintaining safe food in this country is essential, but it should not create unnecessarily burdensome regulations that put diversified, sustainable and organic farms at risk of going out of business,” MacKenzie Bailey, OEFFA’s policy program coordinator, said during the listening session.
“We just can’t compete,” said Mark Bender, an Akron-area farmer who has operated a farm market since 1973. “The costs just got too crazy.”
Bender still operates a self-service farm market, but has converted most of his produce farm to raising beef cattle and conventional crops.Mike Laughlin, of Northridge Organic Farm in Johnstown, said, as a small farm, it could cost him $25,000-$27,000 just to come into compliance, and about $13,000 annually thereafter. He fears it will hurt small growers like himself, and favor larger farms that can adapt.
“I can’t raise my prices enough to cover that,” he said. “That’s going to cut right into the money I make in my profit. It’s already pretty tight.
He said it’s simple math.
“If you’re only making $30,000-$50,000 a year and they’re going to take $10,000-$15,000 of that away from you, that’s a huge pay cut.”
Laughlin said he’s not ready to make a decision about the future of his farm until the rule is finalized. But if the costs hold up, he said it will be a major challenge to staying in business.
“You just have to start thinking, ‘is this worthwhile to do,’” he said.
Serious about safety
Laughlin said he’s not balking at food safety, adding it has always been a “huge part of our operation,” with workers trained on how to handle food and conduct operations. But with the new requirements for new equipment and documentation, it will become more costly.
The Bessemers say they want safe food as much as anyone, but that the words “safe food” can be used for a lot of different motives. Don Bessemer said he fears the inspectors will not have a good knowledge of farming and what they’re supposed to inspect.
He’s also concerned inspectors will purposefully try to find issues, to keep their jobs.“I just keep thinking they’re (federal government) trying to create jobs,” he said.
Carol Bessemer said the news reports about foodborne illnesses often incite more concern than the actual issue. She said when even a couple people get sick, it makes national headlines and legislators want to pass new laws.
“That small percentage has got a lot of power, and sympathy power,” she said.
One relief for farmers is that when the rule becomes effective, they will have a pre-determined amount of time to come into compliance. Farms would generally have two to four years to comply, with smaller farms given the most time.
“They’re giving you time, but then again, how much is it going to cost,” Carol Bessemer said.
The proposed rule would cover an estimated 40,496 domestic farms and 14,927 foreign farms.It is available online at www.regulations.gov, and also on the FDA website, at www.fda.gov/Food/GuidanceRegulation/FSMA.