Safety Rules Burden Smaller Farmers


President Barack Obama is vowing to make food safer at the same time his administration wants to get more small farms to grow fruits and vegetables.

Doing both won't be easy.

In recent years, the federal government and the food industry have taken some significant steps to improve the safety of fresh produce. Those measures include stringent inspection standards for farms that supply schools and supermarket chains. The standards sometime restrict the use of compost and manure to fertilize crops and restrict how close cattle can be to fields.

But small-scale farmers and organic growers say those standards can force them to choose between selling to supermarkets and schools or else following practices that degrade the soil and require more synthetic chemicals.

"A one-size-fits-all approach to food safety can leave family farmers with an inability to sell to stores," said Liana Hoodes, an organic farming consultant based in New York state.

The farmers worry that food-safety bills being considered in Congress could make matters more difficult.

A bill sponsored by Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., would authorize the government to set agricultural standards for food crops. Farms that don't sell crops out of state would be exempt.

Jo Ann Baumgartner of California, who runs the Wild Farm Alliance group that promotes environmentally friendly farming practices, said growers are being forced into what she called "sterile farming." In California, that has meant cutting down trees and tearing out grassy patches and other forms of wildlife habitat near fields.

Farmers also are chafing at restrictions on the use of compost. A vegetable grower in California who insisted on anonymity because he didn't want to upset his commercial customers said some farmers are applying compost on the sly or else they are relying on synthetic fertilizers to maintain soil fertility.

"The ground is just degrading in its quality," the farmer said.

The farmers' gripes stem from voluntary farming standards known as "good agricultural practices" that spell out how farms should grow and pack their produce.

The standards include measures to prevent irrigation water from getting contaminated and keep workers from unintentionally contaminating produce.

During the past decade, lawsuit-wary supermarket chains have been increasingly requiring suppliers to get certified by private inspectors who check farms to make sure they are adhering to whatever standards the chains require.

The standards have been tightened further in the wake of a nationwide E.coli outbreak in 2006 that was linked to contaminated spinach. Industry officials said growers now face layers of such standards as their customers have been imposing new requirements.

The U.S. Agriculture Depart-ment has acted, too, by imposing production rules for fruits and vegetables the government buys for school lunches.

Small farms and operations that supply regional markets aren't immune from blame for outbreaks of food poisoning. Alfalfa sprouts produced by a Nebraska grower have been linked in recent weeks to a salmonella outbreak in four states, including Iowa.

Bill Marler, a Seattle lawyer who represents victims of food poisonings, said safety standards shouldn't be weaker for small farms.

Should kids get sick at school from contamination linked to a small farm, parents will ask why the farm didn't meet the standards required of bigger suppliers, he said.

"We all need to figure out a way, whether you're a big player or a small player, that you're treated fairly, that you're inspected fairly and the product you're producing, whether big or small, has the least chance of poisoning some kids," Marler said.

"That's not easy."