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Around The Grange
New Federal Food-Reform Bill Could Affect CT Farmers
 

By Gregory B. Hladky, New Haven Advocate (12/8/10)

  DECEMBER 16, 2010 --

Down a winding dirt road in the back woods of rural Lebanon, a goat farmer and cheese maker named Paul Trubey is getting nervous about collateral damage in Connecticut from what food-safety advocates are doing in Congress.

The stated target of this long-awaited reform legislation is stopping outbreaks of life-threatening illnesses caused by such vomit-flavored gifts from our 21st-century food industry as tainted eggs, salmonella-stained vegetables, and listeria-laden milk or cheese.

“I’m worried people haven’t thought about what this really means,” says Trubey, warning these food-safety reforms could inadvertently cripple Connecticut’s new wave of small farmers, organic food producers and niche suppliers. “The whole thing is really scary.”

Supporters insist the bill that cleared the U.S. Senate late last month will give federal regulators far better tools to combat the often disgusting practices of shoddy food producers.

Contaminated food causes an estimated 5,000 deaths a year in the U.S. and sends hundreds of thousands more to the hospital. The Food and Drug Administration would, for example, finally be able to order the recall of food determined to be potentially dangerous. (All the FDA can do at the moment is say pretty please.)

Remember the peanut-triggered salmonella outbreak in 2009? That one took nine lives. Then there was the E. coli-contaminated spinach case that scared consumers so badly spinach sales still haven’t recovered. This summer, an estimated 1,600 people were sickened by bad eggs produced at two industrial-scale poultry factories in Iowa, prompting a national recall of their products.

Connecticut hasn’t been spared. In 2008, four people were rushed to the hospital with life-threatening illnesses after drinking raw milk tainted with E. coli from a farm in Simsbury. The case was cited in a recently released government study warning of the potential dangers of raw milk, a product that some health-food types insist has marvelous beneficial properties.

The food safety reforms that won Senate approval late last month did so on an unusually bipartisan 75-25 vote. (The Senate’s bill has become hung up on a technical difficulty that could diminish its chances of final approval during the final days of this lame-duck Congressional session.)

In the Senate, the bill got through in part because of a special exemption that’s supposed to protect small-time farmers and artisan food producers like Trubey from costly federal over-regulation.

Producers and farmers that sell less than $500,000 worth of food a year and don’t ship beyond 275 miles would be spared most of the bill’s new documentation and inspection requirements. The legislation’s advocates argue this exemption shows the reforms are aimed at the huge agri-business operations that are almost always the villains in major food-illness outbreaks.

Wayne Kasacek, assistant director of Connecticut’s bureau of regulation and inspection for the state Department of Agriculture, doubts the reform measure will create many problems for small Connecticut farmers. “I don’t imagine the impact on them will be much at all,” he says.

Barry Kapplan, whose wife Nancy is the owner of Bush Meadow Farm in Union, doesn’t think their small farm-restaurant operation will be harmed and fully supports the reforms. “I think it’s great,” he says.

Kapplan says every time there is some horror like last summer’s giant egg recall, his sales drop. “It’s guilt by association,” he says, and frightened consumers don’t seem to realize that his goat milk or organic eggs are safely produced here in Connecticut.

Bush Meadow sells nearly all the milk, cheese, eggs and meat raised on the farm at its own restaurant or farm store, according to Kapplan. He says the family operation is frequently inspected by two different state agencies and the feds, and that all of its food production equipment is calculated to exceed safety requirements.

Kasacek says Connecticut already has strict regulations and inspection procedures for nearly all food producers in this state. His bureau is responsible for regular inspections and monitoring of Connecticut’s 146 dairy operations, including 15 state-licensed producers of raw milk. The agency also keeps tabs on 17 in-state cheese makers, nearly all of which are small operators like Trubey.

Trubey’s Beltane Farm has been in business 13 years, creating fresh goat cheese and French-style ripened cheeses such as Camembert and Brie from the milk of about 100 goats. During the height of the summer season, Trubey says, the farm is using 85 gallons of milk a day to make cheese seven days a week.

His operation would easily qualify for the under-$500,000-a-year-in-sales exemption, according to Trubey. Most of the farm’s sales are at local farmers markets in Connecticut. He says some of his cheeses are shipped to New Jersey, New York and Rhode Island, but those locations are all within the exemption’s 275-mile limit.

Trubey says the exemptions aren’t as beneficial to small farmers as they’re cracked up to be.

Small farmers will still be saddled with new paperwork and accounting demands, including proving to the FDA with three-year’s worth of records that a farm’s sales haven’t gone over that $500,000 threshold, he says.

Startup operations could also have problems proving that their sales won’t top that $500,000 mark, says Trubey. “How do you prove that?” he asks. He also wonders what will happen if his operations expand to exceed that sales mark, or if he ever wants to sell his farm and cheese-making business to someone with hopes for big improvements.

Trubey worries the new legislation will “put the kibosh on the developing face of agriculture in Connecticut.” He says the future of farming in this state is clearly going to be with small, intensive, niche operations like his.

“If you go to farmers markets and see who’s producing the food now, it’s the small farmers,” says Trubey. “Connecticut doesn’t have the vast tracts of land for big-time agriculture.”

This has become a classic sort of American debate, pitting the freedom of the individual entrepreneur against the right of government to protect people from danger.

Kapplan sums it up this way:

“I believe in the right of cheese makers to make regional, unpasteurized cheese. It’s their right as Americans. But you damn well better make it safe.”

 
 
 

 
     
     
       
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