You may no longer have to wash your tomatoes before eating them, but they could cost twice as much if farmers have to do it before sending them to market.
There’s growing concern in Hawaii over the impacts of a new federal law aimed at improving food safety and security at everything from roadside stands to big-chain supermarkets.
The Food Safety and Modernization Act has created considerable confusion in the community, Hawaii Department of Agriculture Chair Russell Kokubun told state lawmakers Wednesday.
The House Agriculture Committee held an informational briefing to learn how the Legislature might be able to help. They heard from farmers market vendors, food manufacturers, the Hawaii Farm Bureau, the state departments of Agriculture and Health, University of Hawaii experts, the Hawaii Restaurant Association and others.
The two-hour meeting underscored the uncertain costs of implementing the law and drew a broad consensus to form a task force of stakeholders to explore options and improve overall public understanding.
Kokubun said the FSMA has good intentions but lacks clear guidelines.
For instance, the law exempts farms that earn less than $500,000 and sell most of their products to consumers within a certain radius, leaving it up to city and state governments to regulate them. But it’s unknown how the federal law will actually be implemented.
President Obama signed the FSMA into law in January 2011. Almost two years later, the wait continues for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to issue guidance documents and administrative rules.
Kokubun said the feds were expected to provide this clarification soon after the Nov. 6 election, but so far all he has heard is that draft versions may be circulating for approval.
“The states are really in shambles on this,” he said. “There are some that are enacting laws that go to the Nth degree and some that are not, I think, because of the uncertainty.”
Hawaii’s ag department has chosen to hold off on any rule-making of its own, Kokubun said.
Meantime, he said the state is following the USDA’s initiative and developing best practices for what happens on a farm. The state has set money aside so it is ready to implement these and other aspects of the law as soon as the rules come out.
The UH College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources is part of the effort to help farms adopt better ag practices. Jim Hollier, a UH farm economist, said this is one way FSMA will make food safer for Americans.
“The focus of this act is on prevention,” he said. “It’s a 180-degree shift away from reacting to problems.”
The rub in Congress right now is how to pay for FSMA, Hollier said. Ultimately, he said, the cost will be borne by the marketplace.
The only numbers to emerge from the discussion were how much it costs the state to run its food safety program. Peter Oshiro, the state health department’s environmental health program manager, put that cost at roughly $5 million to $7 million a year.
Kokubun and Oshiro were concerned about the impacts of the layoffs of health and agriculture inspectors in recent years. Oshiro said if FSMA ends up increasing farm inspections to three times a year, for instance, the state would have a hard time managing without more staff and money.
There are nine inspectors on Oahu who are responsible for 6,000 establishments, he said. That’s a ratio of about 600 to one. To effectively carry out the state’s food safety mission, he said that ratio has to be 150 to one.
But food safety regulations also depend on what farmers want to do, Oshiro said.
If farmers are OK with just selling whole, uncut produce — which is completely unregulated at this point — then the state would just need to improve practices at the farm, he said.
But if farmers want to do more value-added products — such as food that is ready to eat right out of the bag or served up at farmers markets — then a lot more should be done, Oshiro said.
Farmers told the lawmakers that they want the state to help them defray the cost of food safety inspections.
Brian Miyamoto, who testified on behalf of the Hawaii Farm Bureau, said the bureau won’t be submitting any food safety legislation this year. He said it wants to take a step back and wait for the rules coming from the FDA.
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