Richard Drew, Associated Press
WASHINGTON — Shoppers nervous about foodborne illnesses may turn to foods produced at smaller farms or labeled "local," "organic" or "natural" in the hopes that such products are safer. But a small outbreak of salmonella in organic eggs from Minnesota shows that no food is immune to contamination.
While sales for food produced on smaller operations have exploded, partially fueled by a consumer backlash to food produced by larger companies, a new set of food safety challenges has emerged. And small farm operations have been exempted from food safety laws as conservatives, farmers and food-lovers have worried about too much government intervention and regulators have struggled with tight budgets.
The government has traditionally focused on safety at large food operations — including farms, processing plants, and retailers — because they reach the most people. Recent outbreaks in cantaloupe, ground turkey, eggs and peanuts have started at large farms or plants and sickened thousands of people across the country.
"While it's critical that food processors be regularly inspected, there is no way the Food and Drug Administration would ever have the resources to check every farm in the country, nor are we calling for that," says Erik Olson, a food safety advocate at the Pew Health Group. "Unfortunately, there are regulatory gaps, with some producers being completely exempt from FDA safeguards."
The FDA, which oversees the safety of most of the U.S. food supply, often must focus on companies that have the greatest reach. A sweeping new egg rule enacted last year would require most egg producers to do more testing for pathogens. Though the rule will eventually cover more than 99 percent of the country's egg supply, small farms like Larry Schultz Organic Farm of Owatonna, Minn., would not qualify. That farm issued a recall last week after six cases of salmonella poisoning were linked to the farm's eggs.
A new food safety law President Barack Obama signed earlier this year exempts some small farms as a result of farmers and local food advocates complaining that creating costly food safety plans could cause some small businesses to go bankrupt. The exemption covers farms of a certain size that sell within a limited distance of their operation.
Food safety advocates unsuccessfully lobbied against the provision, as did the organic industry. Christine Bushway of the Organic Trade Association, which represents large and small producers, says food safety comes down to proper operation of a farm or food company, not its scale.
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