David And Goliath

The Biblical tale of the battle between David and the giant Goliath became the symbol for an age-old struggle between the big and the small. By its nature, the interests of the big and the small are often at odds, and it is a struggle that has spanned the years over time.

We see it here at Florida Grower because we serve both large and small growers in our readership. It presents a challenge we don’t take lightly because we appreciate that we serve all of our readers regardless of size. Nowhere in recent history have we seen the divide so wide than between growers of differing size in the debate over food safety reform and legislation. We’ve read countless comments on both sides on our social network ProduceCommunity.com and news website GrowingProduce.com.

The food safety argument basically boils down to fairly simple terms. The small farmers believe new, stringent rules applied to all would unfairly require them to absorb unsustainable expenses to comply that should only be applied to large growers. After all, they argue, large growers are supplying large amounts of produce in the channels of commerce, therefore more likely to result in mass foodborne illness outbreaks.
Large growers argue, with the support of key produce associations, that rules must apply to all growers who produce food for sale to the public. After all, they say, one bad apple, big or small, paints the entire industry with a bad brush if a food safety scare occurs. If a small grower that has been exempted of new rules has a problem, it will be the whole industry that suffers.

The conversation has been ongoing online. One small grower noted: “I for one would like to have someone tell me what was the last contaminated food outbreak that came from a small farm. We can police ourselves and that is what has been occurring at the larger farms through organizations such as the Produce Marketing Association and United Fresh. These are the big farmers and processors that really have the need to watch their food safety, not the little guy.”

A larger grower stated his case this way: “Sorry, contamination is an equal opportunity catastrophe — size doesn’t matter. In Washington state, we just had another artisan cheese company linked to an E. coli outbreak. Several others have had recalls because of Listeria in 2010. All of these are micro-sized or ‘small’ growers. I do not believe a heavy handed government bureaucracy is the answer, but using size as a get-out-of-jail-free card to a food safety program seems irresponsible.”

What is clear to me is regulations can’t be so onerous that they put the smaller grower out of business. Some of the fees and record keeping obligations may do just that. That’s not right. But, we must recognize, to a consumer, a food scare in tomatoes means all tomatoes are bad, no matter what.

Does the Food Safety Modernization Act with its Tester amendment strike the right balance between big and small? We’ll dig into this major revamping of food safety regulations next month. We want to present the arguments and appreciate that big or small growers have the same goal — to provide a living for their families and feed the world.

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