As salmonella-tainted pistachios and peanuts fuel the latest in a series of foodborne-illness outbreaks, lawmakers are proposing a flurry of bills aimed at strengthening the country's neglected food safety system.
But while food industry giants that have long opposed new regulations are beginning to change their tune, small-scale producers are growing increasingly vocal about their own concerns.
The problem, they say, is that small farmers, who are most accountable for their food's freshness and health, may suffer the heaviest burden under proposed new food rules.
"A lot of people worry that what's on the books right now is very much geared toward the biggest agricultural players," said Patty Lavera, assistant director of the nonprofit consumer group Food and Water Watch. "It's sort of a one-size-fits-all approach, and when its one size fits all, it's usually written by the big guy."
Bills sponsored by Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.) and Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) contain measures that would ramp up federal oversight of farms and food processors, granting new inspection powers to the Food and Drug Administration, imposing agricultural standards for food crops, and beefing up record-keeping requirements that would help regulators trace a tainted food product to its source.
Large food processors that lost tens of millions of dollars from peanut product recalls and the resulting consumer wariness have begun to voice cautious support for the measures, with Kellogg CEO David Mackay last month telling Congress: "I think anything we can do to strengthen confidence in the food safety system in the U.S. is worth doing."
But small-scale farmers say the big companies have the funds and staff to comply with the rules, and that factory farms that specialize in mass-producing one item are better positioned to comply with mandates to establish food safety plans for every product they sell.
"A small farm is much more likely to grow multiple things and have a diversified approach," Lavera said. "So if they have to take 19 steps for each of those crops, it's much harder for them than a large farm that only grows one or two things."
Small farmers argue that they are already much more accountable to their customers for the quality of their product than are mass-production facilities, and that they will be crushed under the weight of well-meaning laws aimed at large industrial offenders.
Particularly burdensome are proposed standards for record-keeping, they say. While the DeLauro bill would allow for paper record-keeping, the Dingell bill mandates electronic record-keeping. Small farm operations fear that such a rule would involve establishing an expensive and time-consuming system that could put them out of business.
"The law requires that a food safety plan be written up and that the farms keep a record of the way it is administering the plans," said Alexis Baden-Mayer, political director of the Organic Consumers Association, a nonprofit advocacy group. "If it was scale appropriate and was mashed in with organic standards, it would be fine. But it's not."