by Marion Nestle
Mar 20 2009

What’s up with the organic e-mail scare?

My e-mail inbox is flooded with copies of the wild message about how proposed food safety legislation will kill organic farming.  Ordinarily, I ignore such rumors, but I’ve had two requests to comment on this one.   From Cynthia: “Can you please point me in the right direction on this rumor that the new bill will eliminate organic gardening.”  From TSR:  “Just got an e-mail about the FoodSafety Modernization Act of 2009: HR 875 — and I’m kind of terrified. I have been checking out many different sources online — this does indeed seem to be something to be very scared about and very real.”

I have no idea what this is about but it makes no sense to me.  My suspicion (based on no evidence, really) is that the message comes from opponents of animal traceability who think that having to track animals will be difficult for small farmers. The food safety bills up before Congress are designed to either redesign the system or fix the FDA (see previous posts). As far as I am concerned, all food producers should be following HACCP safety plans and safety rules should apply to all of them. So I don’t see the connection.

Or am I missing something here?  If anyone has any idea about what this is about, please enlighten.

Update: the Eating Liberally folks forward this summary of myths and facts about one of the food safety bills.

Update March 24: here’s a reasonable analysis of the benefits of the legislation.

  • Jon

    It always comes down to “It’ll hurt small farmers.” It’s usually nonsense, but most people are unfamiliar with rural politics (e.g., the inheritance tax, which has a clause prohibiting taxation of small farmers, will “hurt small farmers”; the irony being that the biggest threat to rural America is gentrification from “ranches” that are really McMansions). So, for instance, labeling GMOs “will hurt small farmers”. (Never mind that the only way small farmers make money off GMOs is subsidies.)

  • Chelsea

    From what I have heard within the wild rumors, the bills are funded by Monsanto and want to require that certain pesticides etc are ALWAYS used on all crops to protect the food supply. I’ve also heard that there is not enough specific language to exempt backyard organic gardens from the regulations.

    The couple of emails I have received both contained links to a fear-mongering Ron Paul vid that contained no real facts, much to my disappointment.

    I am eager to hear what the bills really WILL accomplish, but I havent found it anywhere yet.

  • Stephanie

    I think one of the biggest controversies surrounding the bill is the rumor that Rosa DeLauro’s (the Connecticut congresswomen who is sponsoring the bill) husband, Stanley Greenberg, either works for or has some connection to Monsanto. I’ve read some sites that claim he works for the company, but these sites also spell his last name with a “u” – Greenburg. Another site I read [] actually spelled his name correctly and said he has “direct ties” to the company. This is all blog-generated suspicion, however.
    A second controversy is that Monsanto is said to be pushing for Michael Taylor to be the Administrator of the proposed Food Safety Administration: [–HR-875.aspx].
    Putting the actual content of the bill aside (which after reading several times, I can somewhat understand the controversy, but I think it’s founded mostly in the broad language of the bill) I think that these two things are the driving force behind the protest.

  • Marion

    @Stephanie–Thanks for the tips. I did some research. The Stan Greenberg who is married to Rosa DeLaura is a well known political consultant (see His firm, Greenberg Quinlan Rosner, has indeed consulted for Monsanto but is mainly known for its liberal and left wing clients (see I discussed Michael Taylor’s complicated career at length in my book “Safe Food.” I think it is way too simplistic to dismiss him–or Greenberg–as tools of Monsanto. We need to be doing what we can to support legislators who are trying to improve organic standards and food safety.

  • Arlene Johns

    Thank you for posting “myths and facts” about this issue! I tried to read through the bill online and of course, could not even begin to get through it.

  • Cynthia, Tx

    Marion, thanks for taking the time to post this on your blog. I hate rumors but I do know some times there can be a little hidden truth to them. But, after reading some of the comments posted here and tracing the email that was forwarded to me the company Monsanto is somehow attached to them. So, I would say big business is about to start some fear mongering regarding organic gardening.

  • Gekkobear

    Well lets see.

    A “Small Business” and “Farm” qualifies as a “food production facility” under that legislation. Do you know the details of fertilizer, storage, nutrients, etc. for your roadside stand? DO you make preserves for sale? Isn’t that “food processing”? There are no limitations on size, so do you have quarterly random inspections as befits a Category 4 Food Establishment?

    Or is that not a “business”? Is it not a “farm” or not “food processing”? If its both, you’ll need to be regulated and have the proper paperwork.

    But don’t worry, if you mess up the fines only range up to $1,000,000 per violation per day. I’m sure they’ll charge less as all funding will be kept to fund their operations…

    Oh, sorry; I was reading the text of the bill; my comments are quotes from the terminilogy of the bill:

    Your “myths and facts” seemed to gloss over most of these. Nothing in the bill limits it to farms of a certain size, or any limitations on where or how the food is sold. You have a farm, you sell produce, you’re a “food production facility” as this bill is written. I suspect if you don’t sell your farm’s produce you might be exempt, the bill doesn’t say either way.

    If you actually read the bill you’ll find the descriptions so vague as to potentially cover any farm in the U.S.; with no limitations or exemptions listed.

  • Ann

    HR 875 is a badly written bill. I’ve read it several times, and I agree with Gekkobear comments.

    A member of Rep. DeLauro’s staff was nice enough to return by call regarding HR875. I asked if someone who had a few chickens and sold a dozen eggs now and then to a neighbor would need a bio hazard plan? Answer: yes, because eggs are regulated by the FDA.(I’ve read elsewhere that this bill only applies to interstate commerce, but I did not get that from reading the bill).

    But, the bill would “fix” the paperwork requirements by providing small business support to all the small producers. Any guesses how much that will cost?

    In reality if a bill passed such as HR875, the FDA probably would not be enforcing all of it against Grandma and her egg-money. If that is the case why not write a reasonable bill that clearly distinguishes between super small producers and large industry?

    Rep. DeLauro co-sponsored HR814 which adds traceability requirements to livestock carcasses, including horses, for human consumption. She also co-sponsored HR503 which makes it a crime to transport horses or horse meat for human consumption. Regulate or criminalize? Which is it?

    Is it really too much to ask of a member of Congress to put some thought into the bills that they churn out and co-sponsor?

  • Diana

    According to the Senate version of this bill, S 425, the fines are $100,000 per day, not one million. That’s not a small chunk of change either, especially for a small producer. I agree, my concerns about these bills (and I have read the actual bills) are that there is no distinction about the size of the farm or what the it’s producing. It does appear that the bills, if passed, would provide fodder for the Feds to put unfair pressure on small producers. The senate bill does require “traceability”, but offers little explanation what that encompasses. In reading the press reports, the bill was put forth by Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown because someone he knew was sickened by eating egg salad purchased at a local supermarket. He thinks the ingredients in that salad should be traceable. How do you trace every piece of celery and onion? Even if you could make the large producer do that, how would a small farmer participate in that sort of process without driving him/her out of business?

    My sense is that these bills were put forth in the interest of food safety, but they were poorly thought through, at least as far as small, local producers are concerned.

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  • Joe Rogo

    I’m surprised not only with the people commenting on rumors, but who have not actually read the bill, but also with people who claim the bill is somehow unreadable and, incredibly, with people who have read the bill and still don’t understand the most basic of definitions within the bill.

    So, please read the bill. then read my explanation, then read the bill again. There’s no excuse – the bill is short enough to be easy even for a slow reader like me.

    “Food production facility” is the term the bill applies to facilities EXCLUDED from the bill’s registration regulation. It’s a bit odd, but the definitions section of the bill defines the facilities to be subject to the regulations as “food establishment”. What the bill then defines as “food production facilities” are the subjects of exclusions.

    “Food Establishments”, registered under this bill.
    “Food Production Facilities”, EXCLUDED from registration under this bill.

    From the exclusions section:

    “For the purposes of registration, the term ‘food establishment’ does not include a ‘food production facility’, as defined in paragraph 14, restaurant, other retail food establishment, nonprofit food establishment in which food is prepared for or served directly to the consumer, or fishing vessel …[not] engaged in processing”

    Paragraph 14 defines as “food production facilities”, “any farm, ranch, orchard, vineyard, aquaculture facility, or confined animal-feeding operation”.

    All these are defined as “Food Production Facilities, and are thus EXCLUDED from registration requirements:

    Aquaculture facilities
    Confined animal-feeding operations
    Retail food establishments
    Nonprofit food establishments serving food directly to customers
    Fishing vessels not engaged in processing

    INCLUDED “food establishments” are businesses which process, store, hold, and transport food. From the text of the bill:

    “The term ‘food establishment’ means a slaughterhouse (except those regulated under the Federal Meat Inspection Act or the Poultry Products Inspection Act), factory, warehouse, or facility owned or operated by a person located in any State that processes food or a facility that holds, stores, or transports food or food ingredients.”

    These hardly sound like the roadside vegetable stand or organic farm. In fact, “farms” are specifically excluded from registration.

    Further, I am encouraged by two other sections of the bill. First, comprehensive whistleblower protection for federal employees or their contractors’ employees, which includes the inspectors themselves, employees of any covered “food establishments” and even employees of the excluded facilities.

    Second, comprehensive provisions providing for citizen civil actions against both the administrator of the agency created by the bill and any person who violates the regulations.

    But don’t take it from me. From Food and Water Watch folks:

    Myths and Facts: HR 875 – The Food Safety Modernization Act

    MYTH: H.R. 875 “makes it illegal to grow your own garden” and would result in the “criminalization of the backyard gardner.”
    FACT: There is no language in the bill that would regulate, penalize, or shut down backyard gardens. This bill is focused on ensuring the safety of foods sold in supermarkets.

    MYTH: H.R. 875 would mean a “goodbye to farmers markets” because the bill would “require such a burdensome complexity of rules, inspections, licensing, fees, and penalties for each farmer who wishes to sell locally – a fruit stand, at a farmers market.”
    FACT: There is no language in the bill that would result in farmers markets being regulated, penalized any fines, or shut down. Farmers markets would be able to continue to flourish under the bill. In fact, the bill would insist that imported foods meet strict safety standards to ensure that unsafe imported foods are not competing with locally-grown foods.

    MYTH: H.R. 875 would result in the “death of organic farming.”
    FACT: There is no language in the bill that would stop organic farming. The National Organic Program (NOP) is under the jurisdiction of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). The Food Safety Modernization Act only addresses food safety issues under the jurisdiction of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

    MYTH: The bill would implement a national animal ID system.
    FACT: There is no language in the bill that would implement a national animal ID system. Animal identification issues are under the jurisdiction of the USDA. The Food Safety Modernization Act addresses issues under the jurisdiction of the FDA.

    MYTH: The bill is supported by the large agribusiness industry.
    FACT: No large agribusiness companies have expressed support for this bill. This bill is being supported by several Members of Congress who have strong progressive records on issues involving farmers markets, organic farming, and locally-grown foods. Also, H.R. 875 is the only food safety legislation that has been supported by all the major consumer and food safety groups, including:

    * Center for Foodborne Illness Research & Prevention
    * Center for Science in the Public Interest
    * Consumer Federation of America
    * Consumers Union
    * Food & Water Watch
    * The Pew Charitable Trusts
    * Safe Tables Our Priority
    * Trust for America’s Health

    MYTH: The bill will pass the Congress next week without amendments or debate.
    FACT: Food safety legislation has yet to be considered by any Congressional committee.

  • jan

    I also wonder if there are those posting on these blogs from agribusiness comapanies trying to persuade us that this is a wonderful bill that won’t hurt small farms. It is said that Monsanto has a very extensive Internet PR gang that posts to these blogs. I too agree with Gekkobear. The bill is written very vaguely, and to me it does matter if the person who wrote this bill has a husband whose client is Monsanto. It does and should raise questions about the ultinate intent of the bill. Politicians rarely if ever word bills on precise language, particularly to be able to apply it on a broad basis to suit their needs and the needs of their benefactors. I will say this though, should this bill pass as is then those who seem to think it is for the benefit of food safety should then immediately demand the arrest and fining of the CEOS of Coke, Pepsi, McDonalds, Tyson, (just to name a few) and any other company pumping out processed GMO laden food garbage that is loaded down with preservatives, chemicals, artificial colors, etc. to us on a daily basis while telling us it is safe for us to consume while obesity and diabetes rates sore in this country. But of course, it won’t be the Cokes, Pepsis, McDonalds, or even Monsantos that will bear the brunt of the costs under this bill that may well bring some smaller farms down. It will be the smaller establishments that will be innundated with paperwork and fees under yet another federal government behemoth agency as the real culprit of the poisoning of our food, factory farms gets a free ride. When this government actually begins to clamp down on glyphosate poisoning of our crops and other pesticides, transgenic contamination, and the labelling of our food with GMOs and getting processed food junk off our shelves, then I will consider them credible regarding “food safety.”

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