Hearing from Farmers and the Rest of the Story:
Bills introduced at the Virginia General Assembly are extremely diverse in topic and purpose. Some are easily identifiable as excellent ideas that will help the citizens of the Commonwealth. Some are obviously not needed or could cause more problems than they fix. Some just need more time to study.
Among the large array of bills, a few of them are necessary to bring Virginia into compliance with Federal regulations. Virginia is not a state that “ignores” Federal law.
Instead, Virginia can sometimes offer a more local oversight to comply with Federal requirements, rather than having our citizens deal with Federal offices, and especially the time delays that can result, when trying to do business.
One such bill this year is SB1195 (Senator Richard Stuart) that deals with commercial produce farmers. Our office has received a couple hundred emails or calls from farmers, including the President of Pittsylvania County Farm Bureau, who supports the bill as is currently amended.
Those who have called and emailed expressed their support of the bill and make the point, “I am a farmer, and I shouldn’t have to wait for federal inspectors for me to be able to sell fresh fruits and vegetables across state lines. I would rather work with a representative from the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.”
I address this topic this week because there have been a few folks who are making and sending out sweeping statements about this issue without full details; it has even been suggested that inspectors could come on any farm at 2 a.m. and confiscate stuff. That is not factual.
First, this bill, which deals with safe product procedure inspections, only applies to produce farms that have gross sales of more than $25,000 averaged over 3 years rolling and that raise produce that will likely be eaten raw, that is without further processing or cooking.
The idea of the inspection is to minimize the risk of microbial contamination. These are farms that do all the growing, harvesting, packing and delivering of raw produce to consumers without any commercial processing. It is about the food being safe to eat.
Here are some of points of the bill:
- Most produce farms in Virginia are not large enough to be covered by the Produce Safety Rule. The National Association of State Departments of Agriculture (NASDA) estimates that there are approximately 2,300 farms in Virginia growing produce. According to this estimate, approximately 400 of these farms will be required to be in compliance with this rule.
- It does NOT apply to produce that is grown only for personal or on-farm consumption.
- The FDA (Food & Drug Administration, which is Federal) requires that states participate in carrying out the provisions of this rule in order to perform inspections or the Federal Inspectors will do it. Thus far, 42 states have entered into cooperative agreements with the FDA to carry out the work related to the Produce Safety Rule. In the remaining eight (8) states, the rule will be enforced directly by FDA personnel.
- Industry organizations representing produce farmers who must comply with this new federal requirement, including the Virginia Farm Bureau and Virginia Agribusiness Council, support this legislation to assist Virginia farmers to work with state personnel on education and compliance with the Produce Safety Law, versus federal implementation and inspections.
- The FDA promulgated the federal regulation titled “Standards for the Growing, Harvesting, Packing, and Holding of Produce for Human Consumption,” which is commonly known as the Produce Safety Rule. This rule became final in January 2016. This new federal regulation mandates regulatory oversight (at the state or federal level) of farms that grow, pack, distribute, and sell produce that are subject to this regulation.
- Inspectors shall only have access at reasonable hours to the farms, that require inspection, to secure samples for food safety testing and clean, acceptable processing. If a farmer’s product does not comply with the safety check, the produce may be destroyed.
- If the Federal Regulations go away, so will the implementation of this bill. In any case it sunsets in 5 years.
Some of you may remember the Paul Harvey radio program where he was famous for telling you the “rest of the story” or important details that might not be obvious on the surface. The rest of this story is that the federal Produce Safety Rule will be enforced until repealed or unfunded at the Federal level.
We can inspect at the state level or let our farmers deal directly with the Federal Government. Farmers have asked me to help pass this bill.